Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Optimize Your Stress to Increase Productivity

You can learn how to benefit from stress with specific focused thought.

Key points

  • Research shows that how we think about stress impacts our physiological and emotional responses.
  • You can learn to think more productively about stress to improve your mood and productivity.
  • Strategies to think productively about stress include viewing the stressor as something new, interesting, and challenging.
JE Shoots / Unsplash
Source: JE Shoots / Unsplash

It seems like you can’t pick up your smartphone or open your laptop without finding an article about the harmful effects of stress. We’re bombarded with stress management advice that ranges from meditation to hiking trips in the forest. But did you know that the most powerful thing you can do to manage stress stems from how you think about it?

You can harness the energy generated by stress to increase your adaptability and productivity. For example, a client whom I’ll call Ray is an emergency room physician. He was recently diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and started counseling with me to help him better manage stress. IBS symptoms tend to worsen under stress. IBS symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and embarrassing flatulence.

“At the hospital, I often skip restroom breaks as patients pile up. Now the stress of being unable to get to the restroom in time freaks me out. I think it is making the IBS worse,” Ray said. “It’s terrible. The hospital is already short-staffed, so if I take time off, it places a huge burden on the rest of the staff. I’ve got to do something to manage better.”

I asked Ray, “In what way could the stress of IBS be good for you?” He thought for a few moments and said, “it’s made me prioritize taking restroom breaks, and I’m eating a healthier diet.”

“So, the stress of IBS makes you take better care of yourself while working. Have you changed anything outside of work since your diagnosis?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “I started exercising every day that I’m not working. I’ve had a stationary bike at the house and never used it. Now I start my morning with exercise. It makes me feel better.”

I asked Ray, “do you think you might see some long-term health benefits from better nutrition, regular exercise, and bathroom visits?”

“Definitely!” Ray said. “I think it might end up helping me have a healthier life in the long run.”

Researchers at Stanford University found that we can optimize our response to stress by changing our mindset and appraisal of stress. When faced with stress, we might immediately think, “this is bad for me.” The mindset that “stress is bad” influences our physiological and psychological responses, often creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind reflects on the harmful effects of stress and amplifies them. We become stressed about our stress (Crum et al., 2020).

When you change your thought from “stress is bad for me” to “stress can be good for me,” you aim your mind toward positive benefits.

Initially, Ray thought, “stress is making me sick. Stress makes my IBS worse.” When Ray changed his mindset to “stress can be good for me,” he began to see the IBS symptoms as helpful reminders to increase his self-care. He stopped feeling stressed out about his stress. Symptoms of stress became a welcome reminder to take better care of his health.

Research shows that when we see our physiological responses to stress (i.e., increased heart rate) as normal healthy reactions, we cope better. We have a more adaptive cardiovascular response (increased cardiac efficiency and lower vascular resistance) when we think our stress response is normal instead of bad and dangerous. Our thinking becomes more flexible and adaptive, shifting away from a negative bias to allow more positive thoughts (Jamieson et al., 2012).

How to Shift Your Stress Mindset

Sometimes it helps to have simple tips and tricks to move our thinking from “stress is bad for me” to “stress can be good for me.” One method I’ve been using with clients can be remembered by the anagram N.I.C.E.

  • Novel. When you view the stressor as something new, you activate dopamine receptors increasing motivation and improving memory (Duszkiewicz et al., 2019; Skavronskaya et al., 2020).
  • Interesting. Find something interesting about the stressful event. Studies show that cultivating curiosity and interest improves creativity, work engagement, life satisfaction, and well-being (Schutte & Malouff, 2022).
  • Challenging. View the stressor as something that challenges you to rise and grow. Viewing stressors as challenges boosts our mood and productivity (Yang & Li, 2021).
  • Exciting. When you see your physiological responses to stress as excitement, your cardiovascular response improves, and you feel better emotionally. Performance improves when we tell ourselves that anxiety is excitement (Brooks, 2013).

I used this tool with a client I’ll call Teri. Teri was a sales manager who had to travel quite a bit for work. Unfortunately, she developed a terrible fear of getting lost. Just thinking about the potential of getting lost in a new place caused her heart rate to accelerate and her thoughts to flood with feelings of helplessness and danger. In addition, she feared the embarrassment of panicking in public or with her colleagues. Piling onto the fear was a belief that her anxiety would harm her health.

“It’s bizarre because I used to love to travel before I took this job. Now I dread having to go to a new city. I waste so much time worrying it’s hurting my performance at work,” Teri said. I asked her what she loved about travel. “I love seeing new things. New people, scenery, architecture, food, it’s all so stimulating,” she said.

“When you get lost, you are in a new place, right?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “Can you imagine for a moment that you could enjoy being in a new place?” I asked. “Can you think about the fun of traveling, seeing new things, talking to different people, exploring different scenery, which could happen while you’re lost?"

Over time we did more work on her stress mindset. She learned to see her racing heart as a sign of excitement, not harmful stress. She changed her stress response when attuned to curiosity, interest, and fascination with new places. With her expanded mindset, she now saw the possibility of getting lost as a challenge that provided benefits rather than a catastrophe to avoid at all costs.

The next time you find yourself stressing about your stress, try approaching it as something novel, interesting, challenging, and exciting. Watch your mindset shift with the awareness that stress can be good for you. You can make it N.I.C.E.


Brooks, AW. Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2013 Nov. DOI: 10.1037/a0035325.

Crum AJ, Jamieson JP, Akinola M. Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion. 2020 Feb;20(1):120-125. doi: 10.1037/emo0000670. PMID: 31961190; PMCID: PMC7608610.

Duszkiewicz, A. J., McNamara, C. G., Takeuchi, T., & Genzel, L. (2019). Novelty and Dopaminergic Modulation of Memory Persistence: A Tale of Two Systems. Trends in Neurosciences, 42(2), 102-114.

Jamieson JP, Nock MK, Mendes WB. Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Aug;141(3):417-22. doi: 10.1037/a0025719. Epub 2011 Sep 26. PMID: 21942377; PMCID: PMC3410434.

Schutte, N.S., Malouff, J.M. A meta-analytic investigation of the impact of curiosity-enhancing interventions. Current Psychology (2022).

Skavronskaya L, Moyle B, Scott N. The Experience of Novelty and the Novelty of Experience. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020 Feb 26;11:322. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00322. PMID: 32174872; PMCID: PMC7057242.

Yang, Y. and Li, X. The Impact of Challenge and Hindrance Stressors on Thriving at Work Double Mediation Based on Affect and Motivation. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021 Jan 28; 12.