Good vs. Bad Stress: The Critical Difference Between Challenge and Threat

When we’re faced with a potentially stressful situation, we automatically and subconsciously ask ourselves two questions:

First: Could this situation cause me harm or loss, or is there potential benefit?

Second: Am I capable of handling this situation?

This is the transactional model of stress and coping put forward by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman in their classic 1984 book Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Our appraisal of any given situation determines our physiological response. So it is not the actual event that causes stress, but the way we subconsciously interpret it that determines how the systems of our body and mind react.

When we go through this process, called primary and secondary appraisal, we determine whether the situation poses a challenge or a threat.

A challenge is a potential stressor that we feel we can handle. When we think of a situation as a challenge, we’re focused on the positive: the rewards or personal growth we’ll attain when we succeed.

A threat is a potential stressor that we feel we cannot handle. When we see a situation as a threat, we’re focused on the negative—the potential damage to our well-being or self-esteem—because we believe we won’t be able to succeed.

The same situation can elicit opposite responses in different people. When faced with giving a speech to a large group, you might feel excitement and anticipation at the challenge. Your colleague might feel terrified at the prospect, and spend weeks beforehand lying awake at night in dread.

While both challenge and threat trigger our stress response, they trigger it in different ways—and as you’ll learn in this article, these opposite physiological responses can have lasting effects on our mental and physical health.

It’s important to note that we usually don’t experience a stressful situation as 100% challenge or 100% threat. In many situations, we experience a combination of both. It’s the proportion of the responses that matters.

Our appraisals of situations and our responses to stress are most often subconscious and habitual, so they can feel out of our control. The good news is that research shows we can retrain how we respond to potential stressors. Becoming aware of our reaction and then making a simple shift in thinking can immediately change our stress response, resulting in lasting physical and mental health benefits.

Physiology of the Threat Response

If we think that we aren’t capable of handling a situation, we feel fear; we want to flee or freeze. We assume that the worst is going to happen. Many studies show the predictable ways in which the systems of our body react to potential threats:

  • Our blood vessels constrict (vasoconstriction) so that we won’t bleed to death if injured
  • Blood flow to the brain decreases
  • The adrenal gland releases cortisol, increasing blood sugar and giving us energy
  • Heart rate speeds up and blood pressure increases
  • We have negative emotions, and an impaired ability to focus and make decisions

Stress appraisals and responses are critical for our survival, but if they are based on distorted perceptions—as often occurs today—they tend to lead to chronic activation of the threat response. In the absence of true threats to our health and safety, we react to traffic and work deadlines as though they are life-threatening.

Anticipating a stressful event has a similar effect on the cardiovascular system and cortisol secretion as actually experiencing the stressful event. If we don’t recover from the anticipation, and if we interpret everyday situations as threats, our threat response is continually triggered. Our blood vessels stay constricted and our heart rate and blood pressure remain elevated, increasing our likelihood of suffering a stroke or heart attack. We’re at risk for developing ulcers, infertility, chronic pain, and dementia. Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue, weight gain, and digestive problems.

When threat-response stress becomes chronic, our immune system suffers as well. We have higher levels of systemic inflammation, putting us at risk for chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Our immune system produces fewer antibodies to vaccinations, making vaccines less effective. We’re more susceptible to latent viruses, like herpes viruses (including shingles and Epstein-Barr). We even heal more slowly from wounds.

Chronic threat-response stress makes us age faster, too. We know this thanks to research on telomeres, the endcaps on each strand of our DNA. Telomeres protect our chromosomes and determine our rate of cellular aging (the longer your telomeres, the better). A study by Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn, authors of The Telomere Effect, showed that women with the highest levels of perceived stress had telomeres that were shorter by the equivalent of at least one decade of aging compared to women who experience low levels of stress. Another study by Epel and Blackburn showed that having a large anticipatory threat response is the most significant factor in telomere length.

Physiology of the Challenge Response

When we think that we can handle a situation, we assume that we’ll succeed. The systems of our body prepare to fight:

  • Our blood vessels dilate (vasodilation), sending more oxygenated blood to our brain and muscles
  • The adrenal gland releases a shot of cortisol, giving us energy; then cortisol levels drop to normal after the stressful event is over
  • We feel positive emotions, and have improved focus, accuracy, and coordination

Challenge-response stress tends to be acute, or short-term. We rise to the challenge of the situation, succeed, and then automatically relax. This short-term stress tends to have positive effects on our immune system, enhancing our immune response to vaccines, tumors, and surgery. And research shows that challenge-response stress increases anabolic (“growth”) hormones, which promote cell growth throughout the body.

These positive effects of short-term stress are evidence of the dose-response relationship consistently found in stress studies. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Exposure to low doses of a stressor or toxic substance triggers cellular maintenance and repair, leading to hormesis—the process of a cell becoming stronger and more resistant to the stressor or toxin.

A 2016 study showed how this dose-response relationship affected adolescents’ ability to cope with stress. Severe stress and trauma in childhood has been linked to many health problems later in life, including depression, anxiety, addiction, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. However, this study compared adolescents who had experienced moderate childhood adversity to those who had experienced low levels of childhood adversity. The students who had been exposed to moderate stress in childhood were better able to cope with stress than those who were exposed to less stress as children. (So when we constantly protect our kids from stressful situations and failure, we’re not doing them any favors.)

Similarly, a 2015 study of Olympic gold medalists found that experiencing adversity played a critical role in the athletes’ psychological and performance development. Athletes who have a challenge response win more often, are happier with their performance, and have more accurate motor control.

Addicted to the Challenge

As I mentioned earlier, threat-response stress has the tendency to become chronic, while challenge-response stress is more often temporary. We’re more likely to recover from challenge stress, and studies show that having a habitual challenge response is undeniably better for overall health. But like anything, you can have too much of a good thing.

One example of this is “adrenaline junkies”—people who thrive on risky situations, like skydiving and gambling. Another example is work addicts or “workaholics” who can’t or won’t stop working, at the expense of other things in their life. A third example is exercise addicts, who use exercise much like other addicts use their drug of choice.

These three types of people have an important thing in common: they’re addicted to the positive—sometimes euphoric—feelings that we experience during the challenge-stress response. When we perceive stress, glucocorticoids (steroid hormones, one of which is cortisol) are secreted by our adrenal glands. Glucocorticoids in turn trigger the release of dopamine in pleasure pathways in our brain.

Dopamine makes us feel great, and it plays a significant role in addiction. Scientists including Robert Sapolsky and Jeremy Adams propose that people who have behavioral addictions become reliant on a single thing—gambling, working, running—to get feelings of pleasure. Their baseline levels of dopamine may even adapt to be lower than normal, requiring more and more challenge stress to activate the reward circuitry of the mesolimbic dopamine system.

Even though the challenge-stress response is a good thing, our bodies and minds aren’t designed to deal with this high level of stimulation constantly. Over time, challenge-stress addicts experience many stress-related health problems: stroke, ADHD, OCD, anxiety, depression, digestive problems, memory issues, insomnia, and decreased job performance.

If you think you’re addicted to challenge stress and that it’s affecting your health, it’s a good idea to talk about your situation with a professional. They will likely recommend that you find new activities to bring you pleasure, create balance in your daily life, and incorporate some down-time so that the systems of your body and mind have a chance to fully recover from stress.

Turn Threat into Challenge: How to Retrain Your Stress Appraisal and Response

Like any voluntary activity of your nervous system, you can retrain your appraisal and response to potential stress. First, you need to become consciously aware of how you are appraising the situation. When you feel stressed out, consider the situation objectively and ask yourself:

First: Could this situation cause me harm or loss, or is there potential benefit?

Second: Am I capable of handling this situation?

If you’re able to answer “yes” to the second question, you will immediately begin to react to the situation as a challenge instead of a threat. You’ll stop worrying about it, you’ll visualize yourself succeeding, and you’ll imagine how confident you’ll feel when you’ve completed the task.

In addition to retraining your appraisal, you can change how you interpret your physiological stress response. If you’re in threat mode, the adrenaline rush feels scary. You subconsciously associate the sensations of your heart racing, blood pumping, and trying to catch your breath with fear, and you instinctively want to decrease the sensations or avoid them completely. But if you notice those sensations and instead think of them as helpful, you can quickly shift into challenge mode.

Researchers have used public speaking and written tests to find out how changing our appraisal of stress-induced arousal immediately changes our cardiovascular activity, attitude, and performance. In one study, when people were told that their arousal was functional and would improve their performance, they had improved cardiovascular functioning and fewer negative emotions. Another study found that when people were told that their arousal would improve their performance, they scored higher on the GRE-math section—both in a laboratory and one to three months later when they actually took the exam.

So when you feel your heart pounding and your blood pumping faster, know that your body is preparing for action. When you’re breathing heavily, know that your blood is bringing more oxygen to your brain and muscles. Instead of fear, let yourself feel excitement. Your physiological stress response is a sign that you care about a situation, and your body is preparing you to engage and succeed.

Rather than trying to avoid the arousal, go with it. Use your stress response to your advantage.

Instead of anticipating failure, anticipate success. Are you capable of handling this? Yes, you are!