Question: When it comes to your mental health, what is more stressful — an unexpected flat tire, or a sudden job promotion? Initially you might respond that the flat tire is far more stressful than a job promotion, as nobody wants a flat tire, and seemingly everybody would like to be promoted and earn a better salary. When we dig deeper, however, we begin to see that regardless of whether something is viewed as good or bad, the accompanying stress can be experienced in very similar ways. A flat tire is stressful as it may result in learning that you don’t have a spare tire, or you realize that you are not even sure how to change a tire! A job promotion, although generally viewed as “good,” brings its own unique stress when thinking about new duties, responsibilities, and people to respond to and lead. The point is that changes in life, especially unexpected changes, often lead to stress.
Successfully overcoming daily stress
The original question posed was posed in terms of stress, and not what you want (and don’t want) to happen. Obviously a job promotion, generally speaking, is almost always going to be a more enjoyable experience compared to changing a flat tire, but in terms of stress we often experience these scenarios in a similar fashion. In other words, trying to fix a flat tire can be overwhelming, but for many people the thought of having to take on new and unknown responsibilities at work (even if it does result in greater pay) can also be quite stressful. Frankly speaking, in terms of the net result, the stress level from both examples may be viewed by many as roughly the same.
One very important way to diffuse and re-direct stress into healthier energy is to divide the stress into two categories: One category of bad stress (i.e. flat tire), and a second group of good stress (i.e. events that are stressful, but usually experienced as good things in life). By listing out both good and bad stress, the process allows for greater control of the situation — and the variable “control” has been associated with lower levels of stress. Put another way, when we feel in control we tend to experience less stress; and when we do not feel in control we generally experience more stress. Developing the mindset of “I can do this” actually diffuses a lot of would-be stress!
A second big psychological benefit to mental health is by breaking down stress into good and bad categories as Hans Seyle discusses by identifying eustress (good stress, and distress (bad stress). Often when we deal with stress, we do not take the time needed to properly appraise the stress we encounter, and as a result it tends to get all lumped together as “STRESS! Seyle’s model allows us to take control of the situation, properly categorize, then build specific approaches toward each life challenge we face. I think you will agree this approach is certainly better for mental health than simply throwing everything together and feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to effectively respond.
Not all stress is bad (and conversely, not all stress is good, either). By identifying and categorizing our stress, we can take relief in knowing that some of our stress is actually rooted in positive life events! A second benefit of setting aside good stress and viewing it in a more positive light is that it allows for more time and energy to be devoted to distress (or bad stress), often resulting in better outcomes. Stress is a part of life, but how we identify, categorize, and respond to stress directly contributes to how we feel about our overall mental health, as well as our level of personal productivity.