top of page
  • Writer's pictureDana Watts

Not All Stress Is Bad - Discover Good Stress

We have become accustomed to thinking of stress as the enemy. We all know that it causes endless problems and a whole list of illnesses -- heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep problems, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, anxiety. We all know without a doubt that stress is bad and that a lifestyle without stress is what we desire. But, as with everything else in the body, things are not as simple as that. This is not a matter of good versus bad.

What is stress, anyway? A little history.

The word "stress" was originally used in physics to describe the interaction between a force or pressure and the object receiving that force . For example, stress measurements are used extensively in construction. Picture the long beams of reinforced steel in a bridge. As part of the manufacturing process, the beam is subjected to stress to determine the point at which it would bend or break. Too little stress, and it is not possible to determine if the beam is strong enough to bare the weight of traffic. Too much stress, and the beam bends, leading to the collapse of the structure.

The expression "stress response" was introduced into the medical field in the 1940's by Hans Selye, a medical researcher, who observed that patients diagnosed with severe illnesses, like tuberculosis and cancer, experienced common patterns of physical and emotional response. They had significant increases in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, perspiration, and

gastro-intestinal problems. They had accompanying emotional reactions of fear, shock, anxiety, anger. "Stress response" became the short way to explain the reaction that people have to an event that is life-threatening and frightening. It is how "stress" became a bad word. But, that is only half the story.

The good side of stress

Good stress is moderate in intensity and is of short duration rather than chronic. It challenges without being overwhelming. It focuses attention. It increases energy and the motivation to achieve a goal. It creates a sense of positive anticipation and excitement. It improves functioning and health. On a basic level, good stress is the right kind of stress (not too much), for the right length of time (not too long), and that challenges your coping skills (but does not overwhelm them). Good stress stimulates the growth of new brain cells in the brain centers that associated with learning and memory. It leads to growth, improved coping, and self-confidence.

So how does one get some of that good stress?

1. Engage in physical activity!

If you think about it, exercise is actually a stressful activity. You have to stop what you are doing and engage in something that is hard and strenuous, makes your heart race and your muscles ache, and makes you feel sweaty and tired. Working out actually causes micro tears in your muscle fibers and produces lactic acid, which leads to muscle pain after a workout. All this might make you wonder why is exercise so good, since it seems to be mostly a pain.

The reasons are many. Here I will talk about one. Exercise increases the production of a protein in the brain that has enormously beneficial effects. This protein, the brain-derived neurotrophic hormone (BDNF) -- I know a mouthful -- acts like a fertilizer in the learning and memory parts of the brain by activating the stem cells that trigger neurogenesis, the birth of neurons. It helps grow new brain cells and supports the health of the ones you already have.

The brains of children are practically swimming in BDNF, which is why they learn things so quickly. As people age, however, the production of BDNF decreases making learning new things more challenging. Perhaps that is the origin of the old saying, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." But, in fact, that is incorrect. You CAN teach an old dog as well as an old person new tricks, and it is BDNF that makes that happen. BDNF is, in a sense, the source of what has come to be known as brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire and reorganize pathways throughout life. An increase in BDNF, is associated with improved memory, faster learning, and overall cognitive improvement. For example, studies show that there is significant improvement in learning and memory after an exercise session.

The CDC currently recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week -- that is 30 minutes 5 days a week -- and 2 days of strength building. Any exercise that raises your heart rate will be beneficial, but even more beneficial for the production of BDNF are complex physical activities that challenge your brain as well as your body. Some examples would be dancing, team sports, rock climbing, tennis. Check with your doctor, however, before starting a new exercise routine.

2. Challenge yourself!

We are creatures of habit and routine. We like to go to work and come home the same way. We interact with the same handful of people. We eat the same foods and go to the same restaurants. I pretty much always order the same thing. I study the menu carefully

because I always intend to get something new, but when I am done, I order the same meal. To be fair, as a vegan, my options are often limited, but even when I go to a place that has a variety of plant-based choices, I still get the dish I had before. I, too, am a creature of habits. At home, though, I am a culinary adventurer. I love to try new recipes and invent new dishes (which might end up only fit for raccoons, but, still, I tried).

To maintain a healthy brain we need novelty and change. We need the element of surprise and discovery -- it brings pleasure and enrichment into our lives. Once again, think of children and how they interact with the world: they are endlessly curious about how things work and why they work the way they do. The earthworm and the stars and everything in between are equally fascinating to them. It is not unusual for them to defy parents out of a sense of curiosity -- what will happen if... And, I am sure you have heard 3-year olds confidently say: "I want to do it!" though they may have never done the "it" before.

It is this quest for discovery and mastery that I want you to rekindle in yourself. Find the child in you and be excited. Decide to learn something new. It doesn't have to be exotic; it has to be new.

  • Learn to dance

  • Fly a kite

  • Go rock climbing

  • Take Zumba classes at your local recreation center

  • Volunteer in your community.

  • Join a cause that aligns with your values.

  • Take a class at the community college.

  • Bake a soufflé and invite your friends and family to try it.

I could go on and on because the opportunities are endless. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what you do. What matters is that you get out of your comfort zone and do something new that is enriching and interesting to you. When you step outside your comfort zone, you create conditions that are part of good stress. You are activating the stress response, but on your own terms.

That is what good stress is all about. You challenge yourself to do something hard for you, but at the end, you are excited, and confident, and happier for having done it.

3. Face Your Fears!

Fears have a way of keeping us hostage, imprisoned inside our comfort zone. We anticipate dreadful things happening if we put even one foot outside, so we retreat and hide where it feels safe. But over time, the comfort zone shrinks as more and more things start to feel dangerous. The fear grows in our minds and generalizes from one event to many. If you are afraid of the dog around the corner because it lunged at you one time, the fear of one dog can generalize to all dogs. Pretty soon it will be impossible to go anywhere for fear of encountering a dog. I have worked with children who were stung by a bee and became so fearful, not just of bees but of all bugs, that going outside in the summer became an all-consuming source of anxiety for them.

Avoidance itself becomes a trap, unfortunately, because you don't have the chance to experience an alternative, another side of the story. You only experience the fear and the anxiety. If, for example, you have a mortal fear of public speaking and avoid it at all costs, you never get to discover that it is not a big deal or that you might be really good at it and even enjoy it. Many standup comedians have a fear of public speaking and deal with it by facing it head on.

To make matters worse, as we retreat inside the comfort zone, our brain suffers. That good stress that your brain needs for growing new brain cells and new pathways does not happen. Instead, fear and anxiety fuel the chronic stress that leads to illness and more stress.

Fear is a powerful emotion, however, so it is not easily defeated alone. Ask your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional who can guide you not only through facing your fear, but also through your journey of learning how to decrease the bad stress in your life while increasing the good.

Go out there and make some good stress happen!

Take on a new challenge!

Grow your confidence!

Awaken the child spirit in you!

Discover the magic!

Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


Recent Posts

See All


Apr 21, 2023

Great post! I especially like the suggestions of new things to try. It can be hard sometimes to decide what new thing to try. The answer is: anything, as long as it’s new! Now, off to make a soufflé!

Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Apr 24, 2023
Replying to

Haha! What a great place to start! A soufflé! You get extra 'good stress' points for being so daring. Let me know how it comes out. :)

Thank you for the positive feedback.


Apr 19, 2023

Great post. Definitely agree with the need to get outside of your comfort zone now and again!!

Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Apr 20, 2023
Replying to

It occurred to me that I did not thank you for your feedback. Thank you!! I am very happy that you like the post. :)


Apr 18, 2023

Another great post! It's easy to forget that manageable feelings of stress and anxiety push us to become better versions of ourselves, giving us motivation to act and address that state of discomfort. As you point out, taking action can help us achieve something great while also quieting that stress or anxiety.

Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Apr 18, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much for your feedback! I like your insightful comment about "becoming better versions of ourselves" as we face challenges that transform us.

bottom of page