What's the Difference Between Useful and Destructive Stress? We Asked an Expert

Dealing with stress is no fun, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't serve a very important purpose.

In fact, in small doses, it's incredibly useful, and it's only when it builds up that it takes on the negative form you probably think of when you hear the word "stress." We were eager to learn more, so we reached out to clinical psychologist and stress expert Dr. Camila Williams to enlighten us. Here's what she had to say.

Sweety High: How would you define stress?

Camila Williams: It's a physical response in the body. Your cortisol hormone increases, and your whole body gears up to take action. Something is going on in your environment, and your body is basically telling you to be on alert and to pay attention to what's happening around you right now.


 SH: People usually think of stress as a bad thing. Why isn't that always the case?

CW: If you think about it, stress is a protective response. It's gearing your body up to take action and stay focused when things aren't necessarily going the way they're supposed to be. It actually helps you be on alert and helps motivate you, giving that extra burst of energy to do something.

Unsplash: Girl working on computer at coffee shop

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In small doses, it's actually a really good thing. If you have an argument with your friend, that can be stressful, so you're on alert, and you're looking at how you can fix it, and make things better. What can you do, and what can you say? That can be helpful. But if you're doing that all the time, every day, that's when stress becomes a problem, because it can start to wear your body down.


SH: What would a life without stress look like?

CW: I think that not as many amazing things would get done. Stress pushes us out of our comfort zones and challenges us to try things that we otherwise wouldn't do. That's how we get a lot of wonderful new adventures, and inventions, and accomplishments. It's always good to have that little extra push. When it came to studying for an exam, if you didn't stress out at all, you wouldn't have the motivation to bunker down and study hard. A little bit of stress tells you that you should probably read that chapter, or that you should probably do some flashcards. It keeps you up to speed and helps you perform better.


SH: How can we tell when stress is pushing into unhealthy territory? 

CW:  If stress goes up, your performance goes up, because it pushes your action, but at some point that productivity plateaus, and then eventually starts decreasing the more stressed out you get. The signs that stress is getting in the way is when you find yourself getting stuck in cycles of procrastination and avoiding. If you're so stressed about a test that you don't even want to look at the books, so you never take them out of your backpack—that's a sign there's too much stress going on.

With relationships, maybe you're constantly worrying about what they're thinking and saying about you, and it causes you so much stress that you avoid interacting with them or bringing up the topic you're having issues with. If you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding or getting stuck, those are the surefire signs that the stress has become too much.

Unsplash: Woman looking worried on black screen

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SH: What are some of the best ways to deal with different types of stress?

CW: When someone is stressed, a lot of people will recommend rest, and taking some time off, and getting a mani-pedi or massage. But when you're stressed, you need to recognize what type of stress you're experiencing. How you cope with it makes a difference.

If you're really stressed about a group project, where there are lots of moving pieces with different people responsible for different parts, and you have no control over what they're doing or not doing, the last thing you probably want to do is spend more time with people. What you need in that moment is what we call autonomy, or alone time away from people, and interactions, and dealing with the stresses that come with it.

On the other hand, if you're stressed about a test coming up and you're wondering what they'll be asking, the last thing you need is alone time, because that's just more time for your brain to run wild. You need to spend time with friends and family and get your mind off it. Different stresses require different coping mechanisms. If you're stressing out because your brain is worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, being mindful and centered in the moment is another really good skill to help.

Some people need an outlet for creativity, whether that's painting or drawing or writing. Some people need to exercise and physically work that energy out of their bodies by going for a walk or a run or playing basketball. There are a lot of ways to focus stress. Once you're able to pick up on the feeling that you're burnt out, and you're being avoidant and procrastinating, you need to step back and figure out which one of those categories will work for you in terms of stress relief.

And dealing with stress isn't just about occasionally treating yourself to a manicure. That's better than nothing, but it's not very helpful. Instead, you need to think about what you can do every single day. The dentist doesn't tell you to brush once a week to avoid cavities. You need to brush twice a day, every day, and it's the same with stress. If you really are struggling with stress, doing one thing once or twice a week is better than nothing, but it's not going to make much of a dent. It's really good to get in the habit of doing daily stress relief practices. Maybe you take time to paint, or meditate, or go for a walk. That's going to do more for your stress than scheduling an activity once a week.

Unsplash: Woman meditating on the beach

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Want to learn more about how mindfulness might help you cope with stress? Click HERE to read more about what Dr. Williams had to say on the topics.