Stressed Out? 3 Ways It Can Actually Benefit You

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22xI_fWPQT5wSTEpmCe4CeQl2J43pZEv1anetTv7rdAPhotographed by Amelia Alpaugh.

You might call J. Maureen Henderson a one-person empire: Other than being a Gen-Y expert, Forbes contributor, and self-described know-it-all, she also founded Secret Agent Research, a creative content marketing training for small business. You can catch her other musings on her blog, Generation Meh.


It’s the season for stress. It seems as everyone I talk to these days is approximately three deep breaths away from their snapping point. But, while workplace stress isn’t good for your heart, that back-against-the-wall feeling can actually be a boon for your decision-making. Don’t believe me? Here are three reasons why being miserable helps you make better life and career choices.

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Eliminates too much choice
At the most elemental level, your choices come down to fight or flight, but even if you aren’t facing a grizzly bear, being stressed out tends to narrow our focus and remove the nuance from a given situation. Your choices are stay (at the job, in the relationship, etc.) or go, say yes or say no. Often, too many options tend to have a paralyzing effect on us — Barry Schwartz calls it The Paradox of Choice. Having unconstrained choice mean that those of us who are ditherers or maximizers can never truly be happy with our pick because we can’t stop imagining a thousand other options and second guessing our commitments. Pressures of time, money, personal unhappiness, or other stressors serve as constraints on choice and force us to make decisions without the usual agonizing or second guessing and from a much shorter list of possible actions.

Focuses your brain on rewards not punishments
Common sense would tell us that when we make decisions out of desperation, we focus on staving off disaster, but research shows otherwise. When we make decisions under stress, we’re actually more likely to be motivated by the prospect of reward than avoiding failure or punishment. We focus on the positive pay-off and make decisions that we think will help us achieve it, which means we’re inclined to opt for choices that we believe will improve our quality of life rather than those which we hope will simply help us maintain the status quo. Stress causes us to focus on the positive, which might be just the push you need if you’re the type to dwell on the potential worst case scenario of any major decision.

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Makes you more likely to take risks — at least if you’re a man
Research shows that stress makes men more like to take on high-risk, high-reward gambles, while women are more inclined to act more conservatively. Being more risk-prone when we’re under pressure does have a down side if the activities we pursue have a significant self-harm component — chain smoking, speeding, binge drinking — but stress can also lead us to take productive risks. When we think we have nothing, we have nothing left to lose. We’re more likely to make big, bold choices because self-preservation is no longer our driving force, and we’re more likely to embrace opportunities we would have deemed too risky or uncertain during happier and more stable times, such as starting a business or making a cross-country move. This post originally appeared on Forbes’ The Ground Floor.