Stress in the United States is at one of its highest points ever. According to a report by the American Psychological Association, over 60% of people are stressed about the future and money. Significantly, 61% of Americans are also stressed about their work.
But while we admittedly have plenty to worry about, stress and anxiety may not be all bad. The APA report stated that stress serves essential psychic and social functions. It lets us know when to be alert to danger or when we may need to reconsider our choices or behavior.
We may have become overly stressed about stress. Here are some reasons why some level of stress can be constructive.
1. It’s a sign that you’re committed
Stress can be a cue that you’re committed and care about your performance at work. Even the speaker who regularly addresses audiences will admit to a least a few butterflies before every presentation. This isn’t a weakness. It’s an indicator she cares about the audience, cares about doing a good job, and wants to succeed—all good things. Likewise, your stress may be a demonstration of your interest in performing well.
2. It’s a sign of connection
Stress also demonstrates a healthy connection with others. None of us work in a vacuum. A solitary writer works with a reader and audience in mind, and an independent graphic designer creates a piece of work for a client. There isn’t anything wrong with letting a little bit of external pressure drive you to do better. It’s natural.
Pressure to succeed signals that we’re part of a broader community and realize the value we bring. If our work didn’t matter, we would have no cause for stress. Work that matters to the community matters to us, and this can result in an anxious—and positive—desire to succeed.
3. It’s a sign of conscience
Importantly, anxiety can also be a message we need to do better. Related to being a part of the larger whole, we are responsible for our own conscience and morality. If we feel a bit out of balance, it may be a constructive trigger to reevaluate our approach or the impact we’re having on others. Pay attention to how you feel after making a sarcastic comment or writing that less-than-positive email. If you find yourself anxious and doubting yourself, it may be a sign to apologize or adjust your behavior in the future.
4. It’s a sign that you need to change
Pressure in the form of anxiety can also be a prompt for change. When things aren’t working out, you might want to consider a shift. A fixed mindset places blame on others or the situation and assume that everyone has a fixed characteristic. A growth mindset, on the other hand, assumes we always have the opportunity to grow and affect change. Cultivating a growth mindset is empowering because it inspires us to own the chance to change our situation. At times, stress might be the catalyst we need toward a new approach.
5. It’s a sign that you need some challenge in your life
A lack of stimulation can also cause stress. We need enough challenge to stay engaged and mentally involved. It is part of the human condition to become accustomed to our surroundings and environment. This contributes to cognitive efficiency, so we don’t have to process new information continually. On the other hand, if we don’t expose ourselves to new experiences, we can become bored.
As psychologist and Fast Company contributor Art Markman previously wrote, there is a stress “sweet spot” where the benefits of stress outweigh the costs. Once you get past that point, then it starts to impact your life negatively. When you’re experiencing stress due to boredom, it’s a good trigger to find opportunities to build new skills. You can also use it as a motivator to take on a new challenge, like leading a project or reaching for a stretch promotion.
Now, it’s important to note that I’m not recommending that you ignore all signs of stress and anxiety. There is a point when stress becomes an obstacle to living a happy life, and without proper management and intervention, it can lead to burnout and exhaustion. However, learn to embrace the stress that does push you to do something better. The ideal is to avoid unnecessarily stressing about stress and pay attention to the positive signals it may be sending.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.