Creative Stress vs. Debilitating Stress and How to Tell the Difference

Improve the quality of your life by understanding the different forms of stress.

Over the last 6 years that I have spent teaching Mindfulness, I have heard a lot about stress. When I present at corporate offices, I will often get a consensus on how much stress employees experience by asking participants to raise their hands if they experienced stress this week. Almost 100% of the time all participants raise their hands to this question. I then follow up and ask, “How many of you have experienced stress today?” which is followed by again a large showing of hands. Stress has been built into the makeup of our society because it is a natural experience. However, with increasing demands at work and the technological revolution speeding up the pace at which our world operates, we need skills to self-manage when our stress gets out of hand or becomes debilitating. Not all stress is bad, however. Creating a relationship to your stress is important so that you can understand the difference between creative stress and debilitating stress and have tools to deal with the latter.  

Debilitating Stress 

Stress that debilitating is also known as “extreme stress” and presents itself as heart palpitations, shaking and depression. If you read those symptoms and think, “oh that’s not me.” Well, guess what? The American Institute of Stress performed research on Stress in the US and found that 1 in 5 Americans experience extreme stress. So if you’ve never experienced extreme stress yourself, it’s almost certain someone you know has. Furthermore, they found that 44% of Americans feel more stressed that they did five years ago. Clearly, stress is a problem that is only worsening as the years go on and the demands increase. Debilitating stress takes over our body and shuts down our immune system which leaves us susceptible to illness and disease. In order to find the root of our stress, we need to notice what the trigger to it. More often than not, we will find that our stress is self-induced. This means thatt the stress we’re experiencing is coming from an internal pressure to perform well, impress someone, make more money, or have what other people have, rather than eminent physical danger (where the stress response originates). While these can be good motivators, they can also get in our way if we don’t acknowledge that they are there.  

Creative Stress 

Have you ever experienced stress that comes from doing something brand new, or working on a project you care about? I’m talking about the exciting kind of stress, that tells you that you’re about to do something that may stretch your limits. This type of stress is called “Eustress” or positive stress and it has the potential to motivate you and help you improve your performance. Creative stress can help to kick us into something called “Flow State” which is a newly researched technique for activating human potential. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term and shares the formula for flow state which requires the meeting of your skill and a challenge that is of the correct difficulty level for you. If the challenge is too easy, you will get bored, but if it is too difficult, you may experience the aforementioned debilitating stress. Mindfulness is a key ingredient to activating the flow state as well because it helps to keep your stress creative rather than debilitating. If you are not paying attention, your mind and inner critic may take over. Olympians, CEO’s, Entrepreneurs, and accomplished humans all around the globe are using Creative Stress and the Flow State to achieve unimaginable accomplishments for humankind. Developing a positive mindset and staying aware when our own mind is holding us back is important in learning how to use stress wisely.  

Self-Awareness & Self-Management Tools 

The first time I presented on Mindfulness at a corporate office there were almost 100 participants, including the regional managing partner. In the moments leading up to my presentation, I felt stressed. I also noticed a few comments of self-doubt coming from my ‘inner critic’. Luckily, what I was presenting on was the answer to my challenge in this moment. I was able to take a moment to breathe deeply, feel my feet on the ground, acknowledge my inner critic and tell it to go away. These self-management tools helped me to stay in the creative stress zone and not fall into the debilitating stress zone. Because of this, the stress that I was experiencing then motivated me to do well, it gave me a surge of adrenaline so I could be on point, and gave me better focus. Practicing mindfulness and other self-awareness tools are important in learning more about how stress presents itself in your body. Once you can identify it, you can work with it. But if you don’t see it, it can take control and become debilitating.  

As humans, we need stress in our lives as motivators. If it didn’t exist, we would not have progressed to where we are today as a species. What’s most important now that we are at the top of the food chain, is that we begin to learn how to recognize our stress through mindfulness, and learn how to relate to it so that it doesn’t become debilitating. Practicing this will help us to rise towards our potential as individuals, as a species and as stewards of the Earth. Creative stress is one of the keys to solving many of humanities largest problems such as climate change and globalization. If we become overwhelmed by our stress, we will never find the answers. However, if we can learn to work with our stress, it will push our minds to unchartered territory, where the answers to life’s more difficult challenges lie.  

Join the Conversation


    1. Avery Elizabeth

      Excellent article on stress, something we all experience in life but handle in different ways. Thank You 🙏🏻.

    2. robert

      Totally agree in “flow state”. What’s most exciting is the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. Thank for the article Grace!

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