Stress: The Good, the Bad and What Small Business Owners Can Do About It

Kathy Simpson

Stress is part of the territory when you’re a small business owner. You experience stress when you’re busy and your business is thriving. You experience stress when times are tough. You experience stress in the plateaus, wondering if business will get better or worrying if it will suddenly dry up.

We’re often told that stress is unhealthy, that it can take a toll on you and ultimately, on the success of the business you own. But the truth is, not all stress is bad. According to recent research by University of California, Berkeley, some kinds of stress are actually healthy, life-affirming and beneficial to your outlook and performance on the job. Maintaining a wholesome balance is the key.

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Here’s how you can recognize good stress and bad stress, and respond in a healthy way to both.

Good Stress

Stress is vital for life. As this infographic shows, stress moves you out of homeostasis and into action, releasing chemicals into the blood that deliver vitality and strength, and enable you to respond to the large and small demands of daily life.

If you’re facing physical danger, the stress response helps assure your survival by delivering the strong burst of energy your body needs to defend against harm or to flee the threat altogether. In day-to-day situations, a moderate level of stress gives you the motivation to take risks, meet goals and take steps beyond your comfort zone. It improves your ability to perform under pressure, enhancing your focus and boosting your brainpower. The UC Berkeley research has even shown that stress can help you learn more quickly and better retain what you’ve learned for future recall.

Without a certain degree of stress, life would be dull and lackluster. Good stress feels good, and makes you feel alive and engaged. It’s when stress is chronic that it becomes counterproductive and detrimental.

Bad Stress

Chronic stress that builds up over time is health depleting. It includes internal stress in the form of worry and anxiety over people and outcomes you can’t control, or an habitually tense and pressured lifestyle that constantly pushes you to your limits (and which some part of you secretly might enjoy). It also includes fatigue that comes from overwork and the inability to take time out to rest and enjoy the pleasurable aspects of life.

The stress response is designed to rise to our aid when needed and subside when the perceived threat subsides. Under chronic conditions, though, the stress response remains elevated, and the chemicals that gave you the burst of energy in times of crisis begin to wreak havoc on your mind and body, increasing the risk of heart disease, digestive problems, a weakened immune system, insomnia, headaches, anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can also make you age faster and cause cognitive and memory problems.’s infographic shows the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the body and mind.

The human body is simply not built to withstand long periods of stress.

How to Handle Stress

Stress is inevitable, and every person’s tolerance for it differs. Some people thrive on constant stimulation without feeling overwhelmed. Others are knocked down by even the slightest bit of stress and need plenty of quiet time to recover. The key is to know your own body and mind and attend to the signs of stress when they arise.

Your First Step to Address Stress

In the heat of a stressful moment, the best thing you can do is pause and turn your attention to your breath. Remove yourself from the situation if you can, but if that’s not possible, stay where you are and quietly take a few slow, expansive breaths. Mentally scan the body and relax the tense places.

Whether you’re experiencing good stress or bad, the same chemicals are released into the bloodstream and can have the same harmful effects over the long term. It’s your job to relax and restore your body to its pre-stress state. This can reverse the negative effects of the stress response, minimize future triggers and increase your resiliency.

Strategies to Better Manage Stress Longterm

  • Identify what causes you stress. Don’t push your problems aside. It’s only by recognizing what’s bothering you that you can begin to take positive steps toward change.
  • Change your perception. The strength of your stress response correlates to the level of danger perceived, and that’s a highly individualized reaction based on conditioning and life experience among other factors. By changing your perception, you can change your response. For instance, what you initially experienced as a threat could instead be perceived as a challenge that calls for you to stretch yourself—and might even benefit your business.
  • Move your body. The stress response is designed to enable the body to take quick action in the face of crisis. Regular movement can help you restore equilibrium. Take a walk, preferably in nature, or establish a regular exercise regimen at home or at the gym. Even some simple head rolls and shoulder shrugs or climbing a set of stairs can relieve stress in the body. Yoga is a particularly beneficial discipline that reduces stress and anxiety and enhances your overall sense of wellbeing.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that helps you slow down, focus your attention, and regain a sense of control over your mind and your day—benefits that will extend into your daily life with continued practice. Even a few minutes spent in daily meditation can make a difference. Many big businesses have introduced mindfulness to the workplace and claim that it has led to better collaboration among employees, improved business performance and—you guessed it—less stress. Mindfulness can work at your small business, too.
  • Cultivate other lifestyle habits that counteract stress. Eat a balanced, healthy diet of whole foods. Get a good night’s sleep each night. Enjoy the smaller moments of life. Budget time for non-work activities and honor those times. Relax with a book. Reach out to supportive family and friends, especially if you need a sympathetic ear or objective perspective. Listen to soothing music. Research shows that it can lower blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety.
  • Take one step at a time. In stressful times, it’s natural to feel the pressure of the backlog of all the things waiting to be done, but that only creates more stress. Focus on one activity at a time. When one is finished, check it off the list and move on to the next.
  • View setbacks as opportunities. Everyone experiences their share of adversity and makes their share of mistakes. Accept that as part of being a small business owner. Take stock of what you could have done differently, reevaluate your goals and resolve to do better the next time around. An optimistic attitude combined with a strong dose of self-acceptance will help you stay on the good side of stress.

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