Distress and Eustress. Do You Know the Difference?

By Dr. Jack Singer

When we think of emotional stress, we automatically assume it’s something that is bad for us. Yes, some kinds of stress are associated with health issues such as high blood pressure, headaches, and even weight gain. But not all stress is negative stress.

To illustrate, think about stress on the body. Some types of physical stress – trauma from a car accident, a torn muscle, or a broken bone – are negative. But other kinds of stress – stretching, lifting weights, speed walking, or running – are good stress that actually make your body stronger over time. Emotional stress works in a similar way.

Distress and Eustress by Dr. Jack SingerGood Stress/Bad Stress

Researchers have discovered that the body responds differently to different kinds of emotional stress. Negative stress, which scientists call distress, is the kind of stress that comes from having your well-being threatened, or from being attacked, physically or emotionally. Distress causes the heart to race, breathing to become shallow, blood vessels to constrict (resulting in clammy palms and headaches), and even insomnia. Loss of a job, worry about family or spouse and divorce or death are huge sources of negative stress.

Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems

Positive stress, called eustress, on the contrary, comes from the anticipation, or the experience, of pleasurable events such as a roller coaster ride, falling in love, watching or participating in a close ball game, or waiting for the starting gun for a marathon. Eustress may cause some of the same physical symptoms, but is actually excitement. Your body processes eustress as positive, and eustress can make you feel good as your body releases endorphins.

Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance

Does It Matter Which Stress You’re Feeling?

Whether the stress you’re under is good or bad does matter.  The stress you’re feeling can be a critical element in how your body processes the physical sensations it’s receiving. When you consciously realize that you’re excited, not anxious, about an upcoming challenge, you give your body keys to how it should receive and interpret the symptoms you are feeling.

Also, some people get stressed ABOUT being stressed. They don’t take the time to determine if they’re experiencing distress or eustress. The “feeling stressed about feeling stressed” loop just exacerbates the negative emotions surrounding your primary stress.

If instead of interpreting all stress as bad, you realize that your hands are clammy and you’re feeling a little light-headed because you’re excited about, for instance, the presentation you’re going to give in front of your colleagues, you can actually enjoy the feelings, realizing they’re coming from a positive source.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Just because eustress is “good stress” doesn’t mean that you want to purposely seek out all the possible excitement-producing events you can. People who do this are called adrenaline junkies! Instead, researchers believe that there is an ideal amount of stress each person needs to experience in order to work at his or her optimum level.  According to these researchers, too little good stress and you’re bored; too much good stress and you can act recklessly, make poor decisions, and become worn down, both physically and mentally.

Pay attention to your own personal rhythms and response to both eustress and distress. Find your own personal “sweet spot” and try to operate within that range. If you feel a little bored with life, try to spice things up by find new hobbies or adventures. And when you’re feeling a little too excited, skip the roller coasters and try a quiet evening at home. It’s all about balance. You just need to find your own!

If you are genuinely concerned about your stress levels I can offer you some help. I have an e-course called 108 Days to Conquering Your Stress that you can find here, or you can call me toll free at 1-800-497-9880 for a free 20 minute telephone consultation.

Free 20 Minute Telephone Consultation with Psychologist Dr. Jack Singer

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