How To Turn Stress To Your Advantage, According to Psychology


In a distant alternate reality, we’d each lead lives that are as uber-productive as they are entirely stress-free. But that’s just what it is: a non-existent utopia. The vast majority of us will never be able to totally wash stress out of our systems or delete them entirely from our vocabularies.


While modern wellness trends tend to focus mainly on eliminating stress, perhaps it’s time to shift the narrative. Instead of fighting the losing battle of trying to getting totally rid of stress, it’s probably better to face reality and learn to accommodate (and maybe even dance with) stress in our lives.

After all, stress is here to stay. Why not stop trying to push it back out the door, and learn how to use it our advantage?

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1. Differentiate between healthy and harmful stress

Stress isn’t always a great evil that must be shunned at all costs. Psychological research has shown that a healthy amount of stress is beneficial, and even necessary, to survival. Similarly, in the corporate world, it’s essential to make the distinction between the kind of stress that facilitates personal growth, and the sort that debilitates and destroys your well-being.


In this context, short-term stress is what you need to work on; familiarising yourself to it is vital in being able to turn it to your advantage. Long-term chronic stress, though, is destructive to your physical, emotional, and mental health. Being able to differentiate between the two is the first step in knowing how to turn stress into your advantage. You can do this in two ways:

  • Changing the way you think about stress
  • Actively seeking out opportunities to enter your “flow” zone, where stress feeds personal growth without overwhelming it


Shifting your stress mindset

When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied the stress levels of 29 000 people over eight years, their findings radically contradicted conventional wisdom. As it turns out, your attitude to stress plays a far more instrumental role in determining your reactions to it than your actual stress levels.


If you take stress as an obstacle to be cleared, you’re making yourself much more susceptible to it. Conversely, taking it as a signal for potential growth makes a massive difference in being able to better deal with it.

Simply changing the way you see stress from something that happens to you, to something that you can use as a tool for growth, can be revolutionary.


Find your “flow” zone

According to psychologist Mihail Czsiksentmihalyi, the key to finding happiness is having “flow” experiences that provide enough of a challenge to promote learning, while also allowing you to take control of your life.


Granted, everyone has different thresholds for personal challenge. The general rule, though, is that if you seek out tasks at work that are slightly above your skill level without being too hard for you, you’re putting yourself in the best position to grow.

The stress you’ll feel when you’re working on “flow” tasks is healthy. It helps to activate and maintain your high-focus mode for the duration of the task, thus maximising how much you’ll learn from it.


2. Take it one thing at a time

A lot of the time, stress feels like a giant black cloud of conglomerated worries and anxieties hanging over our heads, following us wherever we go. Without us realising it, this is what makes stress take a toll on our minds, hearts, and bodies in the long-term. Treating stress this way makes it seem insurmountable and far more overwhelming than it actually is.

Instead of allowing all your different sources of stress to congeal into one massive, crippling clot that clouds your vision, take it one thing at a time.


The first step to Marie Kondo-ing your wardrobe is to put all your clothing into one big pile so can properly sort it out. With stress, this is what you need to do as well:

  • Make a list of everything that’s stressing you out–everything
  • Take a step back; look objectively at your list and separate them into tasks that you can immediately take action on, tasks that require you to put a plan of action into place for their completion, and sources of stress that are beyond your control.
  • Start ticking off your tasks one by one

A useful rule to keep in mind when doing this is David Allen’s 2-minute rule. He explains this in his landmark book, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”: if you have a task that you can finish off in less than two minutes, do it now, not later.


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