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New Study Explains How to Use Stress to Your Advantage

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Key Takeaways

  • Sometimes stress can be a good thing.
  • A new study shows how reappraising stress can help people succeed in certain situations.
  • Without any stress, people can become stagnant.

Oftentimes you can feel the signs of stress coming on—your heart rate increases, your armpits get sweaty, and butterflies take over your stomach.

But according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, people can take the experiences of stress and give them new purpose.

“[Stress] is not always negative, and in fact, can fuel growth, innovation, and achievement,” Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author on the study, tells Verywell.

During his study, Jamieson and fellow researchers taught adolescents and young adults at a community college how to reappraise their stress.

“Reappraisal is a form of optimization whereby we try and shift negative stress states towards more adaptive challenge-type stress states. The aim is not to eliminate or reduce stress, but rather to use stress as a tool to help us succeed,” says Jamieson.

Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD

Stress is not always negative, and in fact, can fuel growth, innovation, and achievement.

— Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD

He instructed students to reframe how they think about stress by engaging in a standardized reading and writing exercise that gave them an understanding of how their stress responses can be used to benefit them during performance-type tasks, such as taking a test.

Jamieson says participants were taught the adaptive benefits of stress and were asked to write about how the approach can help them achieve.

The researchers discovered that using stress for “good” helped participants:

  • reduce anxiety
  • achieve higher scores on tests
  • procrastinate less
  • stay enrolled in classes
  • respond to academic challenges in a healthier way 

“We talk about trying to get people to ‘lean into’ their stress responses when they need those processes to perform or succeed,” Jamieson says.

While reappraisal can reduce anxiety, he says the process is more about providing tools to help optimally perform in acute stress situations. 

“Stress optimization is really only applicable in acute stress situations that present immediate demands that need to be addressed. This approach would not be helpful for chronic or structural stressors,” he notes. 

We Need Some Stress and Anxiety

Chloe Carmichael, PhD, author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety,” says a healthy function of stress and anxiety is to stimulate preparation behaviors.

“So, a person with no anxiety, wouldn’t have anything really stimulating them to prepare,” she tells Verywell.

If you think of stress as a force that pushes you to the outer limits of your capabilities to perform, Carmichael says, “by definition we should expect and even learn to welcome the experience of stress; that actually signifies in many situations that we’re actually doing a good job of really challenging ourselves; that’s when we actually do our best growth.”

Chloe Carmichael, PhD

A person who wasn’t experiencing any stress would be prone to boredom or lethargy or a sense of stagnation in terms of personal growth.

— Chloe Carmichael, PhD

Without any stress, she adds, people become stagnant. 

“A person who wasn’t experiencing any stress would be prone to boredom or lethargy or a sense of stagnation in terms of personal growth,” Carmichael says.

Make Time for Recovery and Rejuvenation

While embracing stress can be good, it’s important to create opportunities for recovery. 

“We want to make sure we have some intentional times to review what we learned and make sure we’re processing it in a [healthy way],” says Carmichael. 

She says some people may find the benefits of stress so great that they can overdo it. 

“[If] there is somebody who prides themselves on getting stressed because it means they’re not stagnating or doing nothing, or they get addicted to the sense of accomplishment or growth, which often accompanies stress, they have to make sure they don’t go overboard with it or fall into the societal badge of honor that [it] means you’re working hard,” Carmichael says.

If you fall into this category, she says to be sure to find ways to bring your adrenaline levels down, whether that’s through self-care measures like meditation or journaling or other activities that bring you peace and calm.

Two Ways to Manage Your Stress and Anxiety

In her book, Carmichael gives several tips for turning stress into good. Below are two to consider. 

Attach Emotions to Your To-Do List

If you like to keep busy, but often find yourself feeling like a hamster on a wheel, not fulfilled by your busyness, or that you are stressed by what you need to get done, Carmichael suggests creating a to-do list, attaching an emotion to each item, and then engaging in a self-care act to address the emotion.

She has her clients take a moment to look at each item on their list and ask themselves: What are the emotions that come up with this task?

“Then we layer in a self-care plan for those emotions because a lot of times people who are doers, often are not focused on the rejuvenate and repair part,” says Carmichael.

For example, she refers to a client she worked with who kept putting off helping his mom clean out her attic. He was stressed that the task was on his to-do list and felt like a bad son for not helping his mom.

When she asked him to attach an emotion to the task, the first emotion that came up was sadness and loneliness, though the man didn’t consciously make the connection.

“[The] emotions may not seem to make sense at first, but we have to pay attention to them anyway. What [my client] realized is that helping his mom clean out the attic made him realize that his mom wouldn’t be here forever; that this was part of her downsizing as she thought about moving into her golden years of life,” says Carmichael.

The self-care plan that her client came up with was to interview his mom on video as they cleaned out the attic.

“They talked about the different nostalgic objects together and that allowed him to take that sense of anxiety or stress…and…realize what he was really seeking was connection and closeness to his mom,” says Carmichael. “[Cleaning] out of the attic could be a jumping off point for more
intimacy and quality time together.”

Make Time to Address Your Worries

People who like to keep their plates full can sometimes seek out worrying, says Carmichael. 

“Ironically, some people take comfort and pleasure in worrying because it makes them feel like they are taking care of things and won’t get caught unaware,” she says.

While it can be valuable to think about future situations and to try to strategize, “at the same time, we don’t want to get pained by worries and be randomly or compulsively worrying about things while you are standing in line at the grocery store,” says Carmichael.

Instead, if worries such as getting your gutters cleaned or checking in with your children’s teachers pop up at inopportune times, she says address them at a time you designate on a daily or weekly basis.

“So whenever those thoughts pop into your head, instead of feeling like you have to dismiss them, or take care of them right then and there, you address them fully during your allotted time,” says Carmichael. “This allows you to relax in the moment [because] your brain has an easier time letting go of it once it knows it will get attention. Also, it will get better quality attention rather than trying to address in line at the grocery store.”

Related: 5 Simple Stress Reducers to Try Now

What This Means For You

While stress is often thought of as bad, there are times when stress can be embraced to help you succeed.

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  1. Jamieson JP, Black AE, Pelaia LE, Gravelding H, Gordils J, Reis HT. Reappraising stress arousal improves affective, neuroendocrine, and academic performance outcomes in community college classrooms. J Exp Psychol Gen. Published online July 22, 2021. doi:10.1037/xge0000893