What is the Difference Between Good Stress and Bad Stress?

When someone says they’re stressed, it’s usually not seen as a positive thing, especially if it’s your children. However, stress isn’t always bad- there is such a thing as good stress. Even though you wouldn’t think it at first, good stress can help kids rise to challenges, stay motivated, resolve problems and build their confidence. Yet bad stress can cause children to feel overwhelmed, mood swings, anxiety and even depression. That’s why it’s so important to understand the difference between good and bad stress, and how each can impact your child.

Two Types of Stress

The word ‘stress’ has such a negative connotation, which is why it’s normal to do everything in our power to avoid it. What very few people realise is that we actually need a certain amount of stress to perform in our day-to-day lives. Essentially stress is what drives and motivates us to do what we need to do. Instead of getting rid of stress, it’s important to be able to identify the difference between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.

  • Eustress, means ‘good stress’ and is what motivates us, keeps us productive and creates a feeling of fulfilment.
  • Distress, refers to the negative aspects of stress, such as an ongoing sense of anxiety, negative thoughts or mood swings.

Recognising Good Stress

According to experts, stress is a burst of energy that basically tells you what to do. In small doses, stress has many advantages. For example, ‘good’ stress can help you:

  • Meet daily challenges
  • Motivate you to reach your goals
  • Accomplish tasks more efficiently
  • Boost memory

Psychologist Oddgeir Friborg believes stress is healthy, especially for children.

“Everyone needs to experience stress. This is how we learn to solve challenges, build knowledge and acquire new skills. You can compare stress to vaccines that provide resistance. As long as the stress is within the range that one can tolerate, it can be considered healthy. Children should also be allowed to experience stress.”

Certain kinds of stress such as worrying about a big homework project or exam can in fact be motivating for your child. Not only can it help stimulate their behaviour to deal with the task in hand, but often kids see small stressors as a challenge they want to try and master. However, if your child is going through something stressful it’s important to keep an eye on them and be able to notice when good stress may be turning into bad stress. Here are a few things that can cause stress for children:

  • Big school projects/juggling lots of homework
  • Revision and exams
  • Friendship worries
  • Disrupted home life
  • Excessive screen time
  • Being over scheduled
  • Feeling pressure to perform beyond their ability
  • Failing an exam
  • Physical appearance
  • Judgement from peers
  • Problems with a Boyfriend or Girlfriend
  • Disagreements with friends, teachers and parents

Recognising Bad Stress

Even though some stress is good, too much can be harmful. In fact, if ‘bad’ stress isn’t dealt with properly it can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety and even depression. Often when children are overwhelmed by stress, they will also struggle with learning. This is because stress hinders the brain’s ability to learn by preventing the formation of long-term memories. Bad stress also affects executive functioning skills such as judgment, planning, reasoning, working memory and decision making, which are all essential for successful learning.

It may be tricky to tell if your child is experiencing good or bad stress, but there are some important warning signs you can watch out for.

  • Inability to concentrate or complete tasks
  • Headaches and stomach aches
  • Irritability
  • Change in attitude/behaviour
  • Falling behind in school
  • Trouble falling sleeping or staying awake
  • Changes in appetite
  • Getting ill more often with colds

If you’re noticing that your child is experiencing ‘bad’ stress and you’re concerned or you feel as though their stress is causing anxiety or depression, it’s always worth taking them to your local GP. They may be able to identify if there are any major concerns or if seeing a counsellor will help. These helpful NHS pages also are worth a read and provide signs of anxiety, severe stress and depression in children.