How to Make Stress Work for You

Everyone experiences stress. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed because you’re balancing professional duties, homework deadlines, and family obligations or you’re on edge because you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic, stress is normal, and it happens to everyone.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, other personal stressors — such as financial pressures, difficulties managing remote work while caring for children, and limits on social interactions — are at an all-time high.

A stressed student holds her forehead while working on a laptop.

Although many people assume the best way to deal with stress is to find ways to tamp it down, a better strategy can be to make stress work for you. When managed correctly, stress can drive performance and personal growth.

Find Your Optimal Stress Level

Everyone’s stress threshold is different. Your neighbor may be easily homeschooling three elementary school children while staying on top of their professional responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean everyone can function under the same amount of pressure. When people experience too much stress, it can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and a sense of overall burnout. On the other hand, those who don’t have enough stress may find they function below their baseline.

For example, Student A might tend to procrastinate if they have only one, smaller homework assignment during the week. However, when they’re juggling multiple assignments, professional projects, and the need to make time to drive their children to and from their after-school activities, Student A is more productive. For them, the latter is their optimal stress level.

On the other hand, if Student B already has a full schedule and also needs to study for multiple exams, meet an unexpected work deadline, and still find time to travel to their kids’ sports tournament, they may feel completely overwhelmed and be unable to complete tasks on time.

Set Your Stride

If you’re feeling overstressed, you can take several steps to dial those feelings back.

Schedule Time to Focus on Key Tasks

Setting a schedule and sticking to it can help keep you on track. Be sure to schedule distraction-free time for your studies, your professional obligations, and yourself. Take the time you set aside for yourself just as seriously as any other task, whether you plan to go for a walk, see a movie, or read a book.

Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Sleep

Not getting enough sleep can impair your ability to think clearly and concentrate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults ages 18-60 get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Even if you don’t think you need that much, planning for more means that you’ll rest even if you can’t sleep. Before you go to bed, be sure to avoid things that can disrupt sleep patterns, such as caffeine, alcohol, screen time, and heavy meals.

Eat Well and Exercise Regularly

Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol can take a toll on the body. Eating a healthy diet can help minimize the negative health impacts of stress because a diet rich in lean protein, fruits, and vegetables helps shore up the immune system. Making sure to get enough exercise is equally important, as exercise increases endorphins and calms the mind.

Tips on How to Make Stress Work for You

If you’re interested in finding ways to make stress work to your advantage, you can employ several strategies.

Shift Your Perspective

If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, take a step back. Instead of focusing on your immediate feelings, think of similar situations you’ve experienced in the past, and remind yourself how you worked through them. Make a mental list of the steps you took to overcome challenging situations and adapt them to present challenges.

Prioritize and Focus on Your Most Important Tasks First

Think of the adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Instead of focusing on the big picture, break tasks into smaller pieces and prioritize. If you need to study for an exam, repair your hot water heater, and find your kid a ride to soccer practice, take your tasks one by one. Call another parent to ask for help with transportation or call the repairman to ask if they can come later in the day, and then focus your time on your studies.

If you need help staying organized, apps such as Microsoft To Do can help keep you on track. This free task management app allows you to make task lists, take notes, and set reminders. The app also helps users schedule high-priority tasks (i.e., “must be done today”) ahead of those that are less time-sensitive. Remember: If you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself what you need to do right away.

Unplug and Disconnect

Stressors can be magnified when you’re constantly bombarded with email notifications, social media alerts, and text messages. Give yourself permission to unplug from your devices so you can focus on the tasks at hand.

Find Your Inner Peace

All people experience stress, and feeling overwhelmed is normal. The next time you start to worry that your task list might be too much to handle, take a moment to reframe your mindset. You may find this can help you regroup and create a plan for how to make stress work for you.

Recommended Reading

Is Procrastination Good or Bad? How Procrastinating Impacts Your Study Habits

How Do I Get My Transcripts for College Applications? First-Gen College Students

Work from Home Safety Tips for Online Security


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How Much Sleep Do I Need?

Cleveland Clinic, “Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (And How Much You Really Need a Night)”

Entrepreneur, “How to Make Stress Work to Your Advantage”

Fast Company “Bored or Overloaded? This Is the Amount of Stress You Need to Get Things Done”

FastWeb, “Energizing Study Break Ideas & What to Avoid”

Livestrong, “4 Ways to Turn Anxiety into Positive Energy”

McKinsey Accelerate, “How to Turn Everyday Stress into ‘Optimal Stress’”

Moyer Total Wellness, “Turning Stress into Your Ally with a Shift in Perspective”

WebMD, “Foods That Help Tame Stress”

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