How to turn stress into motivation

Learn how to harness stress to improve your health and wellbeing.
Published 17 September, 2018

Make stress work for you

While stress is certainly no laughing matter, it isn't necessarily always a bad thing. New research shows that, in fact, stress can be beneficial in many ways. The right amount of stress can act as a motivator, boost brain power and memory, make us more resilient and increase immunity. There’s even a name for this kind of ‘good’ stress: eustress.

“Eustress is the ideal amount of stress that pushes you to optimal awareness, cognition and behaviour,” says Dr Renee Mill, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Anxiety Solutions CBT. “It is only chronic, long-term stress that is bad, whereas short-term or moderate stress, which is short-lived and related to something specific, is your friend.”

Stanford Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says that the problem is not stress itself, but the belief that stress is bad for us.

When a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined stress and attitudes towards it in 29,000 people over a period of eight years, they found that participants who reported a high level of stress, and believed that stress impacted their lives and health significantly, had a 43 per cent increased risk of premature death.

These findings may seem daunting or scary, but they are also liberating. If we can reframe the way we look at stress, we can harness it to our advantage.

“When you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to it,” Dr McGonigal explains. Here are some ways stress can actually be good for us.

Use stress to boost brain power

The most common type of stress is acute stress, which comes from the demands of everyday life. This kind helps us accomplish goals and can boost brain power, too. In a 2013 study, scientists did an experiment on rats to see if short-term stress improved memory. They confined the rats to cages, which caused a brief spike in cortisol levels, but also stimulated the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory function.

Two days after the experiment the rats’ memories had not changed, but two weeks later they had significantly improved, leading the scientists to conclude that acute stress has a positive effect on cognitive function. “We think the same thing happens in people – manageable stress increases alertness,” says study author Dr Daniela Kaufer. “Moderate and short-lived stress – like an upcoming exam or preparing to deliver a speech in public – improves cognitive performance.”

"You can mobilise your stress hormones to help you achieve your goals.

Stress can be a motivator

“Most of my high-achieving clients operate with high levels of stress in their jobs and they love their lives,” Dr Renee Mill says. “You can mobilise your stress hormones to help you achieve your goals.”

Stress can also be a great confidence-builder. If you can work through a difficult task or situation, you gain the confidence to take on new challenges, says clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad. “Stress can serve to motivate us to work harder, it can challenge us to achieve difficult feats, and it can show us that we can be resilient and successful under pressure,” Dr Nejad adds.

Going through stressful events can also bring deeper meaning to our lives. In a study by Stanford University, researchers asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement: “In general, I consider my life to be meaningful.” They found that people who had been through more stressful life events also thought of their lives as having more meaning.

Small amounts of stress can boost immunity

Exposure to small amounts of stress can also be beneficial on a physical level, says GP Dr Michelle Groves. “The brain has increased blood flow due to blood vessel dilation and the muscles benefit from the increased flow of oxygen in the blood, too,” she explains.

Stress can also boost immunity. “The immune system’s responsiveness to stimuli can be increased in its readiness by stress. The fight-or-flight hormones stimulate an increase in the rate of release of immune cells (white blood cells) from the spleen and bone marrow, into the bloodstream and vital organs,” she says. “This may help [speed up] patients’ recovery time from surgery and infections, and may lead to an increased response to immunisations.”

While too much stress can cause anxiety and poor health, too little can result in lethargy, boredom and even depression. “The optimal level of stress may differ among individuals but you definitely need to have enough stress in your life to perform at your best,” explains Dr Nejad. “Research shows us that very low levels of stress and very high levels – particularly when it is prolonged and unrelenting – can lead to poorer functioning and performance.”

This research goes back to the beginning of the last century, when psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson suggested that cognitive performance improves as stress increases, although it decreases again if stress levels continue to rise.

The right amount of acute stress tunes up our brain and improves our performance and health – the key is to find the right balance. “Optimal stress is operating when you feel energised, focused, are achieving your goals, are physically well and calm,” Dr Mill says.

Learn to recognise the signs that your stress levels are increasing too much, such as feeling anxious, worrying excessively, or having trouble sleeping. If this is the case, employ coping mechanisms such as talking with a friend, going for a massage or getting out for a walk.

5 ways to leverage stress

1. Take a positive outlook

“Don’t judge stress so harshly,” Dr Nejad says. “Acknowledge the positive function of stress in your life by identifying when it’s helpful and useful.” For example, stress can motivate you to study for an exam, or sharpen your skills in a tennis match.

2. Use stress to get out of your comfort zone

“Stress can make you more social,” Dr Mill says. “Instead of avoiding a party, push yourself to go and the stress hormone will make you more social.” It’s believed that stress triggers something called ‘social approach behaviour’, which works as a stress-buffering strategy and helps us form new relationships.

3. Use it to promote self-care

“Learn to identify when stress is having a negative impact on you and practise strategies to manage it,” Dr Nejad says. Try relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, engage in physical activity, talk to a friend or find ways to decrease your load, such as delegating tasks at work or outsourcing household chores such as cleaning or cooking.

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4. Use stress as a compass

Stress can help you work out what’s important and what isn’t, which in turn can assist in making the right decisions. “Stress has been shown to help people stop worrying about detail and go with their gut,” Dr Mill says. “My clients often say that when they have a real problem to solve they are not anxious but when there is no real problem they overthink.”

5. Work out your optimal stress level

“Observe your performance in different situations to ascertain your optimal level of stress,” Dr Nejad says. “Optimal levels are likely to vary according to the task. The more complex the task, the more important it is that you are in the optimal range to perform at your best.”