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Understanding How to Harness Short-Term Stress for Your Benefit

We are taught that stress is a bad thing, something we must avoid at all costs.  We are bombarded with messages like, “Stress causes Cancer”, “Stress impairs the immune response”, and, as a result, we are instructed to strive for a stress-free, peaceful life.  The reality of stress, though, is quite different and far more nuanced.

Consistent (chronic) high-stress levels are problematic and lead to a host of problems and too little stress can foster boredom and depression.  Meanwhile, the right amount of short-term stress is often beneficial for a variety of reasons.

In this blog, we will look at core concepts around the truth of stress so you can improve your stress management.

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1. Work to Experience Consistent, Long Stretches of Time with Low Stress Levels

A tremendous amount of research reveals that one of the most critical factors in determining one’s ability to harness any one stressful event for one’s benefit is whether one experiences consistently long periods of time with low stress.  

So, one of the most important priorities for us should be to regularly sleep well, eat well, and develop a robust list of healthy activities in which we can regularly engage and work to create regular peace and stress reduction and then consistently partake in these endeavors.  The more we can ultimately create a life of consistently higher peace and low stress, the more we can make the most of capitalizing on the stress for our benefit when it does ultimately appear.

2. Normalize and Embrace Stress

It is critical to recognize that stress is neither good nor bad, rather, it is simply our body’s response to a demand.  As a result, we must work to relabel stress as something that, by itself, is normal and important.  That way, we don’t judge our stress and add on even more in any particular stressful situation.

3. The Crucial Role of Secondary Emotions on Stress

Another critical aspect of how to harness your stress for your benefit is related to the idea of secondary emotions.  Secondary emotions are the layers of additional feelings we have about our initial emotions.  For example, let’s say you are tremendously angry for several days at your boss for his passive-aggressive statement towards you.  Then, let’s imagine you feel disappointed with yourself that you experienced such a high level of anger for what you believe is too long of a time period.  This second emotional response of disappointment is considered a secondary emotion. 

While we cannot control our initial emotional response, we can, however, control how we respond to those initial emotions. 

If we choose to respond to our anger with disappointment, for instance, we are much more likely to have a poorer experience.  Specifically, we are more likely to experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and perhaps depressive feelings for a longer time than we likely would if we responded with compassion, for example, to our anger.  

Specifically, you might respond to yourself with flexibility and understanding with your initial emotion of anger and say to yourself something like, “His comments were hurtful and inappropriate.  I have every reason to be quite angry.  It’s unfortunate I’ve stayed angry for several days and I could work on calming my emotions down sooner in the future.”

4. Understanding the Profound Benefits of Stress in Safety, Memory, and Performance

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When we experience stress, we experience our fight-or-flight response.  In these moments, our bodies release stress hormones, which help us adapt to the demands of the situation. 

One thing our stress response helps us do is to record detailed aspects of the experience that elicited the response so that, in the future, when we experience a situation that even marginally reminds us of this experience, alarms go off in our mind to protect us from it potentially happening again.  So, acute stress on a regular, but not chronic, basis, helps us stay optimally aware and conscious of threats so we can keep ourselves protected and alive.  

In addition to this critical recording and memory process linked to stressful events, stress also plays a critical role in fostering motivation.  We require at least a moderate level of stress to best respond to any event.  If you don’t experience enough stress, you likely will be bored and unenthused, and subsequently experience great difficulty in best responding to the stressor.  Alternatively, if you endure too high a stress level, that can be crippling and debilitating.  

But, when you experience a moderate to moderately high level of short-term stress, that gives you just enough of a push to start and complete whatever task(s) the stressor calls upon you to finish. 

For instance, if you have an athletic competition, you are best suited to experience this moderate to moderately high level of short-term stress, as that will provide you just enough of the needed push and motivation to get out there and give it your best.

Furthermore, these correct amounts of short-term bursts of stress help prepare the brain/us for action by facilitating optimal alertness, which then improves our performance.  In their 2021 study entitled Understanding Stress: Insights from Rodent Models, Atrooz, Alkadhi, and Salim found that when exposed to brief, stressful events, rats developed increased stem cells in their brain, which caused their enhanced mental performance.  

The same is true for us, where intermittent stress likely leads to our brains being more alert, which, as a result, leads to enhanced performance. 

While a myriad of studies on stress and memory demonstrate that chronic stress impairs memory through regularly higher levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones, a handful of studies point to the opposite results for short-term stress.  For instance, in a study where rats were immobilized in their cages for hours (short-term stress exposure), they experienced subsequently high corticosterone (stress hormone) levels.  The researchers noted that this then led to a high production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the memory center (Kirby, Muroy, Sun, Covarrubias, Leong, Barchas, & Kaufer, Acute Stress Enhances Adult Rat Hippocampal Neurogenesis & Activation of Newborn Neurons Via Secreted Astrocytic FGF2, 2013)

To summarize, this hormone is produced at high levels both as a response to short-term and long-term, chronic stress. 

But, with the former experience, we see improvements in memory, whereas with the latter, we see an inhibition in memory.

Additionally, low-level stress stimulates the production of brain chemicals known as neurotrophins and enhances the connections between neurons in the brain, all of which improve our concentration and productivity.  Furthermore, such stress can improve one’s memory in the short-term, say, for example, to study and succeed on an exam. 

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5. The Importance of Reframing Stress in Positive, Adaptive Terms

Lastly, how we judge our stress makes a notable difference in its impact on us.  In their study 2022 study, Reappraising Stress Arousal Improves Affective, Neuroendocrine, and Academic Performance Outcomes in Community College Classrooms, Jamieson, Black, Pelaia, Gravelding, Gordils, and Reis, found that college students who perceive their stress response as a performance-enhancing tool were less anxious, typically healthier, enjoyed higher test scores, reduced moments of procrastination, and enhanced likelihood of staying enrolled in classes. 

Another important example of this concept is about how we view a stressful event.  If we run into a stressful circumstance, and we view it, say, as a challenge we are capable of overcoming, we are much more likely to feel both motivated and engaged, and ultimately experience success in responding to the stressor.  If, however, we respond to the stressful moment with secondary emotions of tremendous fear, overwhelm, and doubt, we are much more likely to feel stuck and struggle to respond effectively to the stressor.

Overall, as Kirby (2013) notes, “I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one.  Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long, and how you interpret or perceive it”.

Learn More about the Benefits of Stress Management in San Diego, OR, Oregon, and Florida

Stress Management in San Diego and elsewhere is hard enough.  With the high cost of living and expenses, anxiety and stress can mount quickly.  That’s why it’s important to learn the best strategies to understand and capitalize on stress.  Our team of caring therapists would be happy to offer support in managing stress from our San Diego, CA-based practice. At Stress Solutions, we are devoted to helping you learn a variety of healthy ways to improve your stress management techniques and transform your life.

 You can learn more about how to best harness stress for your benefit by following these simple steps: or to

  1. Schedule your free, 15-minute phone consultation with our therapist, call today! 
  2. Meet with a caring therapist 
  3. Start coping with stress and anxiety more healthily!

Other Services Offered with My Stress Solutions

Stress management isn’t the only service offered by My Stress Solutions. Our team understands you may experience more than one mental health concern, which is why we are happy to offer a variety of services. Other services offered include online therapy, therapy for trauma, anxiety, EMDR, and addictions. We are also happy to offer support for individuals, couples, and men via in-person and online therapy. Visit our blog or learn more about us for more helpful info today!

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