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Psychology prof says stress can actually be good

Leanne Stevens says stress can be a motivator

4 min read
caption A student studies at Dalhousie University.
Lama El Azrak
A student studies at Dalhousie University.
caption A student studies at Dalhousie University.
Lama El Azrak

Final exams are coming. You’re looking for a job. You need a new place to live.

As the end of the school year approaches, thousands of university students are filling up the library to study for their exams and meet all of their upcoming deadlines.

“It’s very stressful actually,” said Meghan Chisholm, a student at Dalhousie University. “Just trying to fit so much in, in such a short period of time is very stressful.”

But Leanne Stevens, a psychology professor at Dalhousie University, says stress can actually be good for you.

“Stress is not necessarily a terrible thing to have all the time,” said Stevens. “Stress can be an excellent motivator.”

According to a study in the U.S., adults who experience a lot of stress have a 43 per cent increased risk of premature death. But this was the case for people who only believed that stress affects their health, whereas people who experienced a high amount of stress but didn’t believe it affected their health, had a low risk of premature death.

“People say if you’re under a lot of stress you’re going to get sick,” Stevens said, “but actually the stronger relationship has to do with whether or not you think being under a lot of stress is going to make you sick.

“So if you believe being under a lot of stress is going to make you sick, you are more likely to get sick when you’re under stress.”

So when does stress become too much to the point where it really is harmful?

Stevens says imagine an inverted U-shape, where if you absolutely have no stress you’re at the bottom of the inverted U and you don’t have any motivation. Whereas, the more stress a person has the more they go up the inverted U until they reach the optimum area. But, if a person passes that point, eventually they will start to come down again.

“There is a Goldilocks principle to it,” Stevens said. “It’s not too little, not too much, but right in the middle is perfect.”

David Mensink, a Dalhousie counsellor, has a different take on it. He believes people have certain resources within and the demands are outside. If the demands outweigh the resources, it becomes a negative thing for the person.

However, Mensink says that when the demands and resources are in balance it’s not really stress. It’s just work that a person has to do.

Stevens says that stress affects people differently. She describes the analogy of the bucket where everyone has a bucket being filled up with their stresses. As it’s being filled up, it’s fine. But as soon as it starts overflowing, that’s when things start to unravel. Stevens says the idea is that everyone’s bucket is a different size.

“It totally depends on you, as an individual, and how much stress you can handle in your life and how much is a good amount for you and motivates you and how much is overwhelming,” said Stevens.

As Chisholm prepares for exam time, she agrees that there is a good side to stress.

“There can definitely be a good side to it when you know how to cope with it and you can use it in a positive way to motivate you,” she said.

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