The two sides of stress: distress and eustress

Reading time: 4 minutes

One common misconception about stress is that it should be minimised at all cost—that stress is bad. But stress is just your body and your mind’s response to external challenges. Depending on the particular stressors and your reaction, stress can be detrimental (distress) or beneficial (eustress).

While the prefix -dis in “distress” has the same negative root as words like disconnect, dissatisfaction, and disingenuous, “eustress” literally means “good stress.” It was coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1975 to describe a positive cognitive response to stress.

Distress versus eustress

Distress can have a terrible impact on productivity, creativity, and mental health. On the other hand, eustress has been found to enhance performance and overall well-being, especially in the workplace.

Eustress, which is a short-term response, makes you feel motivated and focused when faced with a challenge perceived as within your coping abilities. Similar to the Goldilocks Principle of Anxiety, eustress is the result of just the right amount of stress.

Distress and Eustress - comparison table

Distress results in anxiety; eustress is exciting. In terms of productivity, distress can lead to procrastination, while eustress is a source of motivation. Overall, distress has a negative impact on performance. On the other hand, eustress acts as a performance enhancer.

Because it has many benefits, especially for ambitious people who enjoy an interesting challenge, eustress is actively encouraged by employers. Some of the benefits of eustress include:

  • Flow. When in flow, we are focused on a challenge, fully present, enjoying the absorption. Hargrove, Nelson and Cooper described flow as the “ultimate eustress experience—the epitome of eustress.”
  • Resilience. Because eustress is based on perception, cultivating eustress can help in reacting more positively to challenging situations, resulting in higher emotional agility.
  • Self-efficacy. Your judgement of how you can carry out a required task or take on a specific role is a measure of your level of self-efficacy. People with high self-efficacy will tend to set higher goals and to be motivated to achieve them.

The good news is: you can be proactive in managing external stressors so they result in productive eustress instead of paralysing distress.

How to foster eustress

As eustress is a positive reaction to stress based on perception rather than objective stressors, the potential sources of eustress vary greatly between people. These are examples of stressors which are commonly perceived as positive:

  • Learning a new skill. Working hard to learn something new is for many a safe source of eustress, creating the right amount of challenge, while staying in control of the learning experience.
  • Starting a new job. Because it’s a combination of using existing skills and learning new ones, while quickly forming relationships in a new environment, starting a new job can be challenging in the best ways, resulting in eustress. Similarly, receiving a promotion or moving teams can create good stress.
  • Going on a holiday. Travelling to explore a distant place with a different culture can create eustress by forcing us to get out of our comfort zone. Although travel can bring about distress—cancelled flights, stolen items—many people view it as a fulfilling challenge.
  • Starting a family. Whether getting married or having a child, starting a family can be a source of eustress by offering a novel challenge and many opportunities for personal growth.
  • Moving. Finally, moving houses implies leaving the comfort of a familiar place behind to start a new life. The process is a source of negative stress for many people, but it can lead to eustress because of its inherently adventurous nature.

There are many other potential sources of eustress, such as playing competitive sports, some challenging video games, participating in a tournament, or having a complex but constructive debate with someone.

In order to find your own sources of eustress, the key is to experiment with positive stressors and to practice metacognitive strategies to reflect on their impact on your stress levels. Just remember: not all stress is bad, and eustress can be a healthy source of motivation, as long as you find your own positive stressors.

N.B. This article is part of an experimental series of topics prompted by GPT-3. Many thanks to Marc Köhlbrugge for training it to generate the list of topics.

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