Most people view stress as negative and harmful, but in some situations, stress can be adaptive and helpful. Stress is a normal physiological and psychological response people develop in response to their circumstances. Eustress is a word used to describe stress that is positive, motivating, and enhances functioning while distress refers to bad and overwhelming stress that impairs functioning.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal response to “stressors,” or internal and external circumstances that are difficult, upsetting, or scary. Internal stressors include distressing thoughts or memories, physical sensations like pain or discomfort, and also emotions like sadness or anger. External stressors include any concerning event, situation or circumstance that has the potential to negatively impact a person or something they care about.
When a person encounters a stressor, a chain reaction is set into motion in the brain and nervous system. This chain reaction begins in the brain when a problem or potential threat is identified, which cues the sympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, stress hormones and chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. This results in the stress response (also called fight or flight) and involves a quickening of the heart rate and breath, feelings of restless energy and increased mental alertness.
When stress happens in response to actual problems or threats, it can be helpful in providing energy, motivation and focus needed to confront or solve the problem. This kind of stress is called eustress. When the stress response happens too often or in response to unimportant or uncontrollable circumstances, it is more likely to be experienced as distress, which can have negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health.2
What Is Eustress?
Eustress is a relatively new concept that describes a type of stress that is positive, helpful, and motivating. Unlike distress, eustress motivates people to work hard, improve their performance, and reach their goals, even in the face of challenges.6 In the body and brain, both eustress and distress involve the activation of the fight or flight response.
The difference is that in eustress, the energy provided is proportionate to what is needed in the situation while in distress, the energy is excessive or unusable. Whether a person experiences distress or eustress in a situation mainly depends on their perception of themselves and the stressor. When a person feels confident in their ability to overcome the stressor, they are more likely to experience positive stress.3,4,6 This positive assessment of the stressor helps them channel the energy provided by the fight or flight response in ways that help them work towards a solution.
What Is Distress?
Distress describes the negative kind of stress that most people associate with feeling “stressed out”. Distress tends to cause people to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and to experience physical and psychological symptoms like headaches, tension, insomnia, inattentiveness or irritability. Frequent, intense or chronic stress is toxic to the body and brain and is linked to a number of physical and mental illnesses, as well as impairing a person’s ability to function.2
The difference in eustress and distress has to do with the stressor(s) that triggered the response and the way the person assesses these. Distress is caused when a person assumes the stressor or stressors are not within their control or ability to fix or change. People who experience distress tend to feel overwhelmed and helpless and because they haven’t found an actionable solution, tend to revert to worrying and other unproductive responses.3,4,6
What Are the Signs of Eustress & Distress?
While the physiological signs of eustress and distress can be almost identical (i.e. increased heart rate, breathing and energy), the psychological signs of good and bad stress are different. Some of the differences between eustress and distress are displayed in the table below:2,3,4,6
Whether or not a person experiences good or bad stress when they encounter a stressor depends on a number of individual and situational factors.
Certain factors are more closely associated with eustress while others are associated with distress:2,3,4,6
Causes of Eustress & Distress
There are numerous situations and circumstances that can cause stress. Situations that cause stress could be interpreted positively and lead to eustress or they could be interpreted negatively and lead to distress.
According to data from 2014 and 2017, some of the most common sources of stress reported by Americans included:1
- Work stress
- Political climate
- Future of the nation
- Violence or crime
- Media overload
- Physical health or illness
- Relationship conflicts or loneliness
- Sleep deprivation
- Poor nutrition
The stressors reported above were likely listed as causes of distress, instead of as eustress. While some of the above stressors could cause eustress, stress coming from economic or social disadvantage or chronic health issues are more likely to lead to negative stress. Eustress is more likely to be experienced in more temporary situations, before planned transitions, or when a person has power to influence or direct the outcome they want.2,3,4,6
Some examples of causes of eustress include:
- A promotion at work
- An upcoming event that a person is hosting
- Performing in a concert
- Having a baby
- Moving to a new city
Impacts of Eustress & Distress
Eustress and distress can both have unique impacts on a person and their functioning. Typically, the impacts of eustress are generally experienced positively, and include things like increased motivation, focus, and energy that can be channeled towards a certain task or problem. Distress, on the other hand, tends to have more negative impacts on a person’s mood, health, and functioning.
When distress is chronic and recurring in nature, the increased cortisol levels can result in a number of physical and psychological illnesses and issues, including:1,2
- Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
- Physical pain or discomfort (i.e. headaches, stomach problems)
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Increased heart rate, respiration and blood pressure
- Trouble focusing, concentrating, or remembering things
- Feeling keyed up, on-edge or restless
- Feeling exhausted or emotionally drained
- Having racing or repeating intrusive thoughts
- Not feeling present or engaged in activities and tasks
- Irritability or lowered frustration tolerance
- Heightened anxiety
The longer distress lasts, the more serious the impacts and impairments become. Prolonged exposure to negative stress is linked to:1,2
- Impaired functioning in one or more area of life
- Increased risk for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression
- Increased risk for substance use disorders
- Increased risk for chronic illnesses, heart disease and cancer
- Increased mortality
10 Ways to Prevent Distress & Promote Eustress
Everyone will sometimes experience distress in response to situations that are upsetting or overwhelming, making total prevention an unrealistic goal. Still, it is possible to guard against the negative effects of distress when it is unavoidable, and also to use strategies that sometimes can transform distress into eustress.
The following tips and strategies can be helpful in protecting against and preventing distress:2,3,4,5,6,7
1. Focus on the Aspects of the Situation That are Within Your Control
Distress is experienced when a person believes a stressor exceeds their abilities to cope, which is more likely to happen when people are focused on aspects of a situation that are beyond their control. Sometimes the only aspect of a situation that is within your control is the way you respond to it, but other times there are actionable steps that could help solve the problem or reduce the stress.
2. Find Meaning in Difficult and Stressful Situations
While it might be hard to find meaning in painful or difficult situations, people who do are more likely to experience eustress rather than distress. Finding meaning within pain doesn’t mean that a person is grateful for the experience, but it does demonstrate resourcefulness, resilience and optimism. Meaning could come in the form of an insight about yourself or your situation, increased clarity about what matters most, or feeling more confident in your ability to overcome adversity. Sometimes, meaning could come in the form of a new friendship, skill, or opportunity.
3. Identify Actionable Steps That can Improve the Situation or Prevent a bad Outcome
Distress is experienced when a person feels helpless and unable to do anything that could resolve the stress or prevent a bad outcome. While there are some situations where this is true, there are many more where there is at least one actionable step a person can take to promote the outcome they want. Doing something in the face of stress feels better than doing nothing. Even if your actions do not produce the desired outcome, you will probably feel better about yourself for making the effort.
4. Address Root Causes of Stress Within Your Life
Stress occurs because there is something within you or your life that is difficult, painful or taxing. The root cause of stress could be coming from something that is wrong, missing, or difficult in your life. This could be a relationship, a job, an obligation, or even a destructive habit you have developed. When the root cause of stress is coming from your life or your choices, a true solution will require you to confront this issue and actively work to change it, improve it, or distance yourself from it.
5. Practice Self-Compassion
Under stress, many people revert to self-criticism, blaming themselves for things they did or did not do in the past and setting unrealistic expectations for themselves in the future. While you might think that your inner critic helps to motivate you and improve your performance, research suggests the opposite. When compared to self-criticism, self-compassion has been proven to be more motivating, helpful, and more likely to lead to successful outcomes. Even better… not only do self-compassionate people fail less, they also are more likely to get back up and keep trying after they fail instead of giving up.5
6. Use Mindfulness to Get Out of Your Head
Most people spend a lot of time in their head either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Because you cannot change the past or predict the future, these mental efforts are unproductive, and also provide food for the bad kind of stress. When you catch yourself in these mental thought loops, break free by focusing your full attention on something in the present. This could be your breath, your body, or your surroundings. Be patient with yourself as you begin this practice, and work to gently bring your attention back to the present each time it wanders back to the unhelpful thoughts and stories.
7. Reach Out to Your Support System & Ask for Help
While you may have the urge to withdraw from people during times of stress or hardship, isolation and withdrawal is known to amplify stress and the toxic effects it has on a person’s physical and mental health. Make a point to reach out to the people you can trust, tell them what you are going through, and ask for the help and support you need. Not only does this provide you with support, it also helps to strengthen relationships.
8. Use Relaxation Techniques to Help You Regulate Stress in the Moment
Certain relaxation techniques can interrupt the physiological stress response and promote relaxation. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided meditations are all helpful relaxation techniques. Yoga and Tai Chi are great options for people who find sitting practices difficult.
9. Try EFT Tapping
Emotional Freedom Technique (also called EFT) is a revolutionary way to regulate emotions and reduce stress. EFT is practiced by systematically tapping the fingers on different meridians (energy points) in the body while saying affirmations aloud. While it might seem strange, there is ample research to suggest that this technique is highly effective, and it can be done in just 10 or 15 minutes.
10. Increase Physical Activity to Create an Outlet for Stress
Physical exercise is a proven stress reliever and helps to rebalance hormones and chemicals released when the body’s stress response is activated. Make physical exercise a priority, especially during times of high stress. Devoting time to exercise will help to sharpen your mind, calm your nerves and improve your performance, which will all be helpful during times of high stress.
When to Seek Help for Stress & Distress
Sometimes, distress becomes intense or chronic and it is necessary to seek professional help from a counselor or other professional.
Some of the signs that may indicate the need for professional help include:
- Feeling anxious, overwhelmed or stressed most days for 2 weeks or longer
- Stress that interrupts your ability to eat or sleep or which makes you feel physically ill
- Being unable to concentrate, focus, and function normally because of high levels of stress
- Feeling disconnected from yourself or from reality, hazy or zoned out
- Persistent sadness, fatigue or low motivation that interrupts your normal routine
- Thoughts of death, wanting to die, or considering suicide
- Over-reliance on drugs, alcohol, or other harmful habits to cope with stress
Getting Help for Stress
If you notice one or more of the above signs, it is important to reach out for professional help. Often, stress and its impacts on your physical and mental health can be interrupted, reduced and even reversed with treatment. You can begin your search for treatment in any one of the following ways:
- Conducting a google search or using an online therapist directory to find licensed counselors (for therapy) or psychiatrists (for medication options) near you and calling a few to find one that is a good fit for your needs.
- Contacting your insurance company to identify a list of in-network counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists and following up with a few to find one that is a good fit for your needs.
- Going through your employer’s employee assistance program (EAP) to find out more about mental wellness benefits, which may include a certain number of free counseling sessions.
- Finding a local support group for people who are struggling with similar problems like divorce, parenting issues, chronic illness or grief. There are also more general mental health support groups for people struggling with chronic stress or other challenges.
Infographics About Eustress & Distress