Befriending Stress for the Better

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Imagine: one day, you wake up with zero stress. No alarm rudely waking you up, no deadlines decorating your calendar, and your seemingly-endless to-do list is finally clear. With all this freedom, you can enjoy your hobbies, perhaps go for a nice long walk, maybe start that interesting book you’ve been meaning to read, or listen to that one podcast in your queue! Unfortunately, for the average person and college student, this scenario feels next to impossible. But we still try to pursue such a lifestyle.

Stress is commonly seen as a threat to our productivity and wellbeing. College students are notoriously known for being one of the most stressed-out groups in society. 

When learning about ways to reduce stress, you may have heard the same advice: exercise more; sleep better; eat healthier. Doing this may take time, money, effort, and trying to maintain these may, well, stress you out. You could be doing all of these and still feel less than ideal.

With that in mind, this article will provide a new perspective that may not exactly lower your stress, but will debunk one of the most popular and most harmful (mis)perceptions that stress commonly carries and preach why one could interpret stress for the better.

What is Stress

Before debunking stress, we must know what it means, definitively. In scientific terms, stress is defined as a biological reaction to a change in one’s environment [1].

Why is stress relevant

In the earliest ages, stress helped humans identify dangerous situations and provided a way to solve or escape them. This stress response is commonly known as “fight-or-flight.” The communications and cues within our brain and environment are so fast that it can often happen unconsciously—for example, we may freeze (without realizing it) to avoid an incoming obstacle [2]. Without this inherent warning response, careless mistakes could be fatal. Stress is the “gut feeling” that guides us through unfamiliar situations. It is the reason humans and all living creatures have survived thus far.

Nowadays, changes are happening all the time, be it societal, technological, environmental, et cetera. These continuous changes to our environments could be the source of the heightened general stress in today’s society. As a matter of fact: in 2009, the Health and Safety Executive estimated that 13.5 million working days were lost to stress each year, and the annual cost of work-related stress was around $5 billion [3].

When hearing stats like these, we are all likely to be motivated to minimize our stress as much as possible. This is a logical response, but it may be fueling and grounding the following inaccurate definition.

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Stress as a Fiend

Now we can explore what we commonly—and incorrectly— think stress is. 

When one hears the word “stress,” the feeling of being under pressure may come to mind. This concept is accompanied by the common symptoms of stress: a racing heart, shortness of breath, and possibly even breaking into a sweat. All of these symptoms are associated with anxiety, which is an undesirable state of feeling excessive worry or discomfort.

Why it is harmful

A popular definition is not always an accurate one. With the extreme negative connotations associated with stress, one goes out of their way to reduce stress. In this pursuit, one might adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms to avoid stress, including procrastination (e.g. watching TV, doom scrolling through social media), stress eating (over or under eating), drug/alcohol abuse, and withdrawing from others. There are also healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise and getting good sleep to minimize stress. Of course, we all experience some of these symptoms from time to time, since being stress-free is (biologically) impossible, and evolutionarily unfavorable.

However, we do have the power to alter our mind’s psychological connections with the actions and thoughts we preach, for the better [4]. 

Stress as a Friend

One attempt at enhancing our mindset is by adopting a new interpretation of stress. In this new interpretation, one can choose to see stress as an ally preparing you to face a challenge.

Perceiving stress as helpful, as opposed to solely harmful, has mortal benefits. Over the course of 8 years (1998-2006), participants in a study recorded their annual stress level experiences, along with how they thought stress could affect their health. The results revealed that people who experienced a lot of stress and perceived that stress as a threat to their health had around a 40% higher mortality (death) rate in the 8 years the subjects were tracked. Contrarily, those who did not see stress as a threat to their wellbeing had the highest chances of being alive after the 8 years, even compared to those who reported minimal records of being stressed during the time of the experiment [5]. These findings suggest that our mindset and beliefs can determine our wellbeing.

Why stress is (mentally) helpful

This gentler interpretation of stress has psychological benefits. After reading the study, Harvard health psychologist Kelly McGonical knew she had to change her mind—and the mind of her patients—about how they perceived stress. McGonigal, who had been telling her patients techniques to minimize and get rid of stress for over a decade, framed the beneficial findings of the study in another way.

She argues that we can see our heart racing as our body rising up to a challenge, or our shorter breathing as our lung’s attempt to send oxygen to the brain to think critically. Overall, this framework encourages us to see these symptoms as raising our performance to be able to conquer the task at hand. [6]

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Why stress is (physically) helpful

Perceiving stress as helpful also has functional benefits. 

In a 2012 study, participants were assigned to one of three groups: one where they learned to view stress as helpful; one where they learned to simply ignore stress; and a control group. Then, each group had to perform stressful tasks such as delivering a live five-minute speech and counting backwards from 100 in counts of 7—all in front of a not-so-enthusiastic audience (crossing their arms, furrowing their eyebrows, frowning, and the like). Stressful, right?

During the tasks, researchers recorded the participant’s constriction of blood vessels. When one feels threatened, blood vessels contract more: signaling the body to feel damage or defeat. Contrarily, wider vessels allow more blood and oxygen to flow throughout the body, supporting critical thinking over panic.

The results showed that, compared to the other groups, those who “befriended” stress had more adaptive stress responses: they reported increased blood flow due to the lower blood constriction. Specifically, the group that “befriended” stress had at least twice-as-less blood vessel constriction compared to the other groups, elevating their performance. [7] This goes to show that how we interpret our own body signals and stress impacts how our bodies and minds respond to stress. 

As McGonigal puts it: “Stress gives us access to our hearts.” [6]

Closing Thoughts

As a public service announcement: in no way is this article or its suggestions intended to replace one’s mental health routine or to dismiss signs of chronic stress. If your stress is beyond what you can handle or is interfering with daily functions, keep in mind that professional help and resources are readily accessible at all times. UCLA’s urgent counseling phone number is (310) 825-0768, and the 24/7 national toll-free hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for those undergoing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts. 

Seeing stress as ‘helpful’ or ‘friendly’ might seem counterintuitive at first. This statement is not saying to have more stress, nor to naively trick ourselves into thinking that being under pressure is good. Instead, it encourages us to welcome and acknowledge the normal, ever-present stress in our lives. Stress can be a beneficial feeling and is a necessary function of life; without it, humans would not survive.

When in a state of stress, we can choose to see it as our bodies trying to help us, not hurt or sabotage us—just like a good friend.


  1. “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.” Korb, A. (2015).

  2. “Understanding the Stress Response.” (2011).

  3. “The Stress of Life: A Modern Complaint?” Lancet. (2014).

  4. “The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity.” NeuroImage. (2015).   

  5. “Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality.” Health Psychol. (2012).

  6. “How to Make Stress your Friend.” (2013).

  7. “Mind over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress.” J Exp Psychol Gen. (2012).

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