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Understanding Good Stress and Bad Stress: A Guide to Managing Your Mental Health

Have you ever had teachers give you a ton of work out of nowhere with a deadline that's just around the corner? Perhaps as you are rounding out the end of a marking period? Maybe a boss gave you a sudden and unexpected workload at your job that came with a short deadline? It's a stressful scenario that can make you feel overwhelmed, especially when you have other important responsibilities to attend to outside of work or school.

Did you know that this type of situation can teach us a lot about anxiety and stress?

The last-minute work assignment can either be healthy or unhealthy, depending on some key factors. In this article, we will explore the differences between good stress and bad stress, and how to respond to those stresses when they inevitably come your way.

Good Stress

Stress is a natural, adaptive, built-in response that prepares us for action, both physically and mentally.

This stress response is there to temporarily increase our energy and focus so we can tackle whatever challenge is in front of us.

Marisa Menchola, PhD, a neuropsychology specialist with Banner Brain & Spine stated in a recent article I read, "Positive, healthy stress should feel like, 'OK, this is going to be hard, but I can do this, here we go.'" You may have felt this when you went iceskating for the very first time, got accepted into your top-choice college or when your child took their first step.

Generally, stress is good when it meets two basic criteria: what's being asked of us feels doable, and we know the stress is temporary.

For example, let's say your boss asks you to complete a new project with a short deadline. Do you have the time, energy, and resources to complete the project? Does the project have a reasonable, set end date? If all it takes is a little extra work for a few days, and you've got support at home to work those extra hours, and you can be done by next week, then chances are this stress can be the good kind.

When stress leads to action, and you know that action leads to eventual satisfaction, you're probably in good shape. "Remember, positive stress may make you feel nervous or tense, but it should also make you focused, energized, and invested." Menchola suggests.

Bad Stress

Imagine you have multiple projects, assignments, and tests all due in the same week. On top of that, you still have to attend classes, study for other subjects, and keep up with extracurricular activities. At home, you have responsibilities like helping your siblings with their homework, doing household chores, and cooking meals for your family. And to make things worse, this heavy workload happens every semester, and there's no escaping it.

Let's imagine a different scenario. This time, your boss asks you to do something that'll take multiple all-nighters in the same week, and you still need to drive your kids to school every morning and cook them dinner when they get home. None of your other work assignments can go on the back-burner while you're finishing this new one. Oh, and this new assignment is going to be recurring every month from now on.

These situations no longer feel doable and it's also not temporary. That's bad stress.

Here are some ways to tell if you are dealing with bad stress.

It interferes with your basic functioning:

You start making mistakes on things that are routine - like accidentally putting your keys in the fridge or forgetting to feed your dog.

It affects your health:

You stop taking care of yourself, maybe you start relying on substances every night to "take the edge off," or you're picking up fast food every night because you're too overwhelmed to get groceries and cook, or you're skipping your workouts or morning walks.

You're spending tons of time and energy on small things:

When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, it's common to spend an excessive amount of time and energy on small and insignificant tasks. This could be due to our working memory being overloaded and taxed, leading us to focus on minor details as a means of regaining a sense of control. This behavior can drain us of precious energy that could be better used on more important tasks.

You feel paralyzed:

This is when small things seem impossible. For example, at a restaurant, maybe you genuinely agonize over which meal to order. Or you procrastinate on small household chores that pile up.

How Good Stress Can Become Bad Stress (and What You Can Do About It)

As a teenager or young adult, you may feel like stress is just a natural part of life. And it's true, some stress can actually be good for you! But when you experience too much of it, good stress can quickly turn into bad stress. When you're constantly facing stressful situations, whether it's from school, relationships, or other sources, your body goes into overdrive.

Your stress response is triggered, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to a variety of negative effects, including anxiety, depression, and physical health problems.

To prevent good stress from becoming bad stress, it's important to be in tune with yourself and recognize when you've had too much. While you may not be able to eliminate all sources of stress from your life, there are often ways to minimize or avoid some of the stressors that are within your control. This can help you build up resilience to the unavoidable stressors that come your way.

How Bad Stress Can Become Good Stress (Yes, Really!)

Believe it or not, not all forms of bad stress have to stay that way. You have the power to shift your perception of stress and turn it into a positive experience.

By changing your mindset and viewing stressful situations as challenges rather than threats, you can actually turn bad stress into good stress.

To do this, try focusing on the resources you have to meet the challenge, such as your own strengths and abilities. You can also try seeing the potential benefits of the situation, even if it may not be immediately obvious. Reminding yourself of your own resilience and adopting a positive, optimistic mindset can also help.

As you practice this shift in perception, it will become more automatic, and you'll start to experience more good stress and less bad stress in your life.

Stress is a part of life, but it's important to be aware of when good stress is turning bad and take action to minimize or shift your perception of stress. By doing so, you'll be better equipped to handle the challenges that come your way and maintain your overall well-being.


If you're a parent looking to better understand the impact of stress on your child's well-being, check out this informative article on It offers insights into both good and bad stress and can provide helpful guidance on how you can support your child through stressful situations. Click here to read the article and learn more.


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