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In this article, we will explore the way in which eustress – what I call positive stress – may provide a long-lasting solution to the pervasive “distress” that can create unnecessary harm in our lives.
“Imagine feeling capable of handling whatever life throws at you, without having to panic, overreact, or plan your exit strategy”
writes Kelly McGonigal (2008), a health nutritionist and professor at Stanford University. Yes, it’s possible!
By delving into its inner-workings and the way in which it plays out in a range of domains, we will develop an understanding of how eustress may enable us to live more fulfilling, meaningful lives unconstrained by disproportionate neurological responses.
This article contains:
What is the Meaning of Eustress?
Let’s start by taking a look at stress
Stress is a concept that is deeply entrenched in our everyday lives and personal vocabularies. Intertwined with the notions of ‘responsibility’ and ‘achievement’, we are taught at a very early age that adult life is invariably ‘stressful’ and if it is not, it means that we are either not challenging ourselves or leaving our comfort zones enough and therefore not striving to become the best versions of ourselves.
Stress only came to be defined as a concept and the object of scientific attention in the ’50s. The golden age of the welfare state brought about a drastic increase in leisure time and growing criticism towards work and its ethic. This illustrates how the Western world has only recently come to acknowledge stress and how freshly acquainted we are with understanding its implications for our minds and bodies.
Stress = distress = health risk
While the original meaning of stress as “the non-specific responses of the body to any demand for change” (Selye, 1965) has been preserved and further developed in psychology, the general notion that stress is equivalent to a health crisis which can lead to cardiovascular diseases as well as anxiety and depression (Li, Cao & Li, 2016) has trickled down into the general public to remain there until this very day.
As Le Fevre, Matheny & Kolt point out (2003), the contemporary usage of the word ”stress” has become a synonym for “distress”, a state of ill-being in which happiness and comfort have been surrendered to emotionally and physically demanding circumstances.
As such, individuals say that they are “stressed” when life feels like it is going out of hand, when they feel that they don’t have what it takes to handle a heavy workload or schedule, or when a tragic event happens in their lives (a divorce, the death of a loved one, an accident).
In sum, it is believed that “stress” pushes people into psychological states which feel unnatural, uneasy and which render living in the present and finding inner peace challenging and difficult.
But stress is more than distress
This simplification, however, is an indicator of how little is known on the subject of ‘stress’, the inner-workings of our brains, and the role belief plays in shaping physiological responses.
Hence, that stress has such a bad reputation is in part the result of a misconception, as ‘stress’ is in a general sense only but a conditioned response to a stressor (a stressful event or situation), which means that the belief a person holds about the way they respond to it will determine whether it will be physiologically harmful.
Hence psychology, backed with empirical data, implores us to actualize our definition by stirring in some fresh knowledge that could potentially transform our lives.
Earlier usages of the concept of stress
The notion of “stress” had already been used for centuries in physics to explain the elasticity of a metallic object and its capacity to endure “strain” (as for instance in Hooke’s Law of 1958). It has also been used by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece to denote a disease which combined elements of pathos (suffering) and ponos (incessant and relentless work). By the turn of the 20th century, as the forces of industrialization and urbanization shaped the collective psyche of Western society, stress becomes deeply intertwined with people’s daily lives.
In 1956, the famous Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye publishes The Stress of Life and sets the concept of stress and stressor (to distinguish between the stimulus and the response) at the foreground of psychological research.
Almost two decades later, in 1974, he redefines the terminology to establish a clarification between two different types of stress: eustress, and distress. Combining the Greek prefix eu-, (meaning good) with stress, eustress became the term used to define “good stress” in opposition with “bad stress”.
This was necessary for in non-roman languages, the translation of the term ‘’stress’’ was difficult.
In Chinese, for instance, the translation of the term consisted of the assemblage of two characters respectively representing ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’, both combined meaning ‘’crisis’’.
By making the distinction between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress), Selye sought to show that stress, while being a reaction to a stressor, should not be always linked to negative scenarios.
Eustress = good stress = health benefits
On the contrary, he affirmed that eustress had, in fact, a range of health, mental and physical benefits on individuals, and can be fairly easily distinguished from distress only basing itself on its characteristics, which, according to Mills, Reiss and Dombeck (2018) are the following:
- It only lasts in the short term
- It energizes and motivates
- It is perceived as something within our coping ability
- It feels exciting
- It increases focus and performance
On the other hand, distress, or negative stress, is characterised by:
- Lasting in the short as well as in the long term
- Triggering anxiety and concern
- Going beyond our coping abilities
- Unpleasant feelings
- Decrease of focus and performance
- Possible mental and physical problems
At this point, you are perhaps still a bit confused: how is it that eustress’ characteristics – as outlined above – can be described as ‘stress’ in the first place? The answer is somewhat complex, and so turning to our brains is the only way to find out.
The Psychology of Eustress
Stress as we know it is essentially the outcome of the primal reaction known as fight-or-flight, which evolution has endowed humans with to fight against or flee from a potentially life-threatening danger (McGonigal, 2008). The mechanisms of the reaction are the following:
- As soon as a stressful event occurs, an immediate response in the autonomic nervous system is triggered.
- A stress response ensues, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system and floods the body with hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine (McGonigal, 2008).
- These hormones heighten the senses, increase the heart rate and blood pressure, plunging the brain into a state of hyper-awareness.
- The part of the brain responsible for emotional calm and physical relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system, is overwhelmed.
- This neurological cocktail of hormones and the overactivation of brain areas, in turn, results in a sudden burst of energy and focus, coupled with emotions such as anger, aggression, and anxiety.
While this reaction is most certainly very useful for situations involving a real danger, unfortunately, it has remained as a basic feature of human psychological processes, which activates whenever someone is confronted with what is subjectively perceived to be a stressful situation.
As such, whether the situation is actually life-threatening or not, the hormonal release is the same, which explains why it is possible to experience such intense physical symptoms at the mere thought of something stressful.
This is in some ways a handicap as often people struggle to cope with the behavioral and emotional outcomes of the response.
While the fundamental neurological functioning of the process cannot be altered, something can be done about the stressor (the ‘thing’ that causes the stress in the first place).
Since the stressor is often only a perceived stressor as opposed to a real one, the way the person personally relates to the stressor essentially determines the intensity and the emotional framework within which it is experienced.
This is where eustress kicks in; in some regard, eustress is a kind of positive stress, which neurologically unfurls the same way as other types of stress but is channeled in such a way that individuals who experience it feel good about it.
As the figure above indicates, eustress expresses itself through focused attention, emotional balancing and rational thinking, as opposed to distress, which covers the areas of impaired attention, boredom, confusion, apathy, as well as impaired selectivity, excitement, burn-out and last but not least, disorganized behavior.
This distinction is important as it sets the line between what may be considered to be Flow, a productive equilibrium in which skills are balanced with a healthy dose of challenge, and a state with all the psychological ingredients that could potentially have disastrous effects on a person’s life.
But one question lingers – is it possible to transform distress into eustress? The short answer to this question is yes. For a longer answer, we have to dive into what research and studies have to say about the topic (and for that, you’ll have to keep reading).
Examples of Eustress
Putting together a list of different situations, activities, emotions as sources of eustress is not as easy as, in fact, what is experienced as eustress or distress varies considerably from person to person.
Indeed, Lazarus argued that in order for a psychosocial situation to be stressful, it must be appraised as such (1993).
Here the cognitive processes of appraisal play a key role in determining whether these are interpreted as threatening or not.
This is simply because people react differently to different events and also because meaning and belief play a key role in shaping ideas of what is normal and desirable; for instance, while a divorce or breakup may be considered by most a source of distress, of a few it may be a source of eustress as it evokes the possibility of a long overdue new beginning.
Furthermore, as Suedfeld (1997) points out, some societally traumatic instances such as war, plagues or natural disasters can simultaneously cause stress and distress in an individual: on the one hand, distress would articulate itself around the anxiety triggered by possibly traumatic events, worries of financial nature as well as a concern for other people’s well-being.
On the other, eustress would be triggered by positive forms of social engagement, resourcefulness and assistance to members of one’s community (Suedfeld, 1997), provoked in part by the release of the oxytocin hormone during the stress response, which pushes people to seek and provide support to others (McGonigal, 2014).
This being said, there exists a range of stressors which tend to be experienced positively by most people, most of the time, according to Mills, Reiss, and Dombeck (2018). The following are a few among them:
- A new romantic relationship
- A new job
- Buying a home
- Going on a holiday
- Having a child
- Affording to buy something that is expensive
- Learning a new hobby
While these seem to be huge life milestones, the good news is that eustress also naturally plays out in simple instances of daily life, insofar as these also involve at least the slight pushing of a personal boundary:
- Cooking a complex meal
- Playing a challenging video game
- Going on a hike
- Riding a rollercoaster
All these can be potential sources of eustress.
The key point to remember is that as long as the pushing of this boundary feels pleasurable or enjoyable, then it is eustress.
If it doesn’t feel good – even in a remote sense – then it’s just plain distress.
Listen to your body – because what feels good often does good as well (most of the time). Indeed, research in psychology has shown that those who experience eustress on a regular basis reap a number of positive health benefits.
Subjective well-being goes through the roof, which in the long-term, has a range of positive consequences on physical and mental health (Brule & Morgan 2018).
How does it work? Well, several theories have been proposed to try to answer this question.
One of them is Control theory (Spector, 1998), which suggests that the experience of stress is conditioned by the extent to which an individual perceives he had control over the elements that could possibly cause him stress.
In this context, ‘control’ can be defined as a person’s agency and capacity to make choices between two or more alternatives (Ganster & Fusilier, 1989). The figure below helps to clarify this point:
To summarize, this theory argues that subjective perception plays a big role in determining the type of stress that will result from an environmental stressor, as well as a person’s emotional response to it.
Here, the more control a person has over the environment in which the stressor is located, the less likely that his response to it will be negative (and take the form of ‘distress’, along with the physical symptoms that characterize that type of stress response).
This point has been backed by a number of studies which show, notably in the work settings, that the greater decision-making power of an employee is, the greater his commitment to his role will be, which will translate into increased levels of performance and job satisfaction (Bond and Bunce, 2001; McFadden and Demetriou,1993; Wall et al., 1992).
But these are not the only benefits and positive effects of eustress, and while these have often been overlooked as the result of a prevalent focus on the harmful and negative consequences of distress, they are plenty.
Research and studies
Benefits and Positive Effects of Eustress
Ted talk: How to make stress your friend | Kelly McGonigal
A first useful introductory video on the subject is a Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal (2013), who explains how in her career as a health psychologist, her biggest mistake was to tell people that stress ought to be avoided at all costs, that it is “something that makes you sick”.
While this came from a personal goal to make people happier and healthier, she realized after years of practice that she was instead doing “more harm than good”.
This realization also coincided with the publication of a study for which 30 000 interviews were conducted in the United States over five years asking informants the following question: do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?
The results were astounding: those who had replied “yes” (nearly 186 million U.S adults), also exhibited worse health and mental health outcomes than those who had answered “no” (Keller et al., 2012).
This is simply because of the fact that they perceived and interpreted the physiological response called ‘stress’ to be harmful, it was having, in turn, harmful effects on their bodies.
For McGonigal, this study was a revelation: not because it spoke to the already well-known neurological and hormonal mechanisms of stress, but rather highlighted the ways in which belief was pivotal in shaping health outcomes, and in this context, the ways in which stress is experienced.
And that’s how she became an unconditional advocate of eustress, by advising people to accept a given stress response and to rethink it as helpful, as opposed to detrimental.
This approach, she argues, works best for people, as for instead of entrenching themselves – out of fear of discomfort – in their comfort zones, they develop a mindset equipped to deal with challenges as they can sometimes randomly pop up in existence.
This mindset of resilience benefits people in all areas of life and empowers them enough so that they at least feel that they can pursue what creates meaning in their lives, while trusting themselves that they will be able to handle the stress that ensues from whatever outcome that will engender.
This is a tremendously empowering asset.
In her words, when you choose to interpret the physical symptoms that arise naturally as a response to a stressor – such as a pounding heart – as a “call for action”, as opposed to a call for dread, and a recipe for disaster, “you create the biology of courage”.
A Look at Eustress and Flow
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Flow, the secret to happiness
Described as “the ultimate eustress experience” (Dubbels, 2017), Flow is on the upper end of the stress spectrum, and distress with all its negative components – burn out, confusion, apathy – on the opposite side.
Describing flow as the secret to happiness, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2004) argues that lasting satisfaction can only be found in activities that enable us to step effortlessly and spontaneously into a state in which we surrender ‘who we are’ to merge with an alternative reality which not only challenges us but also makes us experience a sense of ecstasy, a state of intense clarity.
This peculiar state makes you “know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other you know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult; a sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger.”
Put like this, it may sound somewhat surreal; but what Csikszentmihalyi is describing is only but a state of complete absorption and arousal in which an individual finds satisfaction in challenging himself while taking part in an endeavor which is either creative or productive in nature, and requires a specific skill set which the person in question is at least acquainted with.
This state can be achieved by composing music, writing, having a passionate conversation, developing an engineering project, as well as in so many other ways.
How does this connect with eustress?
As we have previously mentioned, the brain responds in a particular way when confronted with a stressor; whether perceived as desirable or undesirable depending its source, its timing, the control of the person, and his or her affective disposition – but if the stressor is perceived as manageable, meaningful and desirable, then a person will most likely develop a predisposition to enter a state of flow, where he or she will put all his energy into the resolution of a given problem or the mastering of a skillset.
This quasi-transcendental experience brings us to examine concrete cases in which states of flow can take place – at the forefront of workplaces and football arenas.
What both have in common is that while practically speaking they involve activities which generate stress in the body, they also, if a delicate balance is achieved, orbit themselves around the notion of eustress as a way of optimizing performance.
The Eustress Scale
Eustress in Business and the Workplace
While the concept of eustress has been to some degree overlooked, one of the fields in which it gained prominence is the business sector.
The business sector quickly understood the utility of being able to maximize the performance of employees in the workplace while ensuring that they are not being overwhelmed by the tasks that are given to them.
The delicate balance between optimal arousal and performance was sketched out in the Yerkes Dodson law dating from 1908 (see the figure below), which states that beyond a certain threshold, performance can become impaired due to excessive anxiety.
The Yerkes Dodson Law, which frequently appears in basic management texts (e.g. Certo, 2003; Gardner & Schermerhorn, 2004) makes the point that individuals can only really thrive under certain conditions, in which for instance they perceive the responsibilities they are given as accessible yet stimulating challenges, as opposed to overbearing hindrances.
According to Gavin & Mason (2004), job stress is felt when the demands of the work exceed the workers’ belief in their capacity to cope.
As such, research has shown (Brule & Morgan 2018) the benefits of centering modern workplaces around the constructive concept of eustress, which allows corporate interests to transpire through the optimal performance of their employees.
One of the main problems with this approach is that in the business context, it has often been misused: instead of carefully monitoring the conditions in which workers were working or adjusting workloads to the esteemed capacity of workers, these were instead told that they were responsible for the way in which they experienced and managed stress (i.e., either as positive or negative).
As Melody (2018) points out, “the idea of using anxiety to enhance performance gained traction in the face of the economic deregulation of the 1990s and the resulting competitive pressure”.
While the instrumentalization of anxiety to promote productivity outputs may seem at first like a bad idea, Melody’s perspective omits that the experience of anxiety is a key element necessary to any state of productivity.
If anxiety refers to stress, then stress can either fit into the columns ‘distress’ or ‘eustress’; and while it is likely that Melody was referring to distress rather than eustress, the notion that stress (if taken as a physiological response) should be completely eradicated from workplaces may, in fact, be detrimental.
Indeed, if employees don’t feel challenged at all by the respective tasks they are assigned with, boredom often arises (Brule & Morgan 2018) which can start a vicious cycle of dissatisfaction in which employees feel frustrated not only with their performance and the work itself but also with themselves, which may result in a low sense of self-esteem.
The lack of stimulation or ‘stress’ resulting in boredom and depression at work is also a phenomena that tends to occur in other areas of life, as for example McGonigal (2008) illustrates, people who try to excessively simplify their lives out of stress-avoidance often end up with living a life that feels like it was crippled of its essential components.
In other words, McGonigal writes that “while excess stress can take a toll on you, the very things that cause it are often the same things that make life rewarding and full. Take a moment to think about the pressures in your life: family, work, having too much to do. Now imagine a life without those things. Sounds ideal? Not likely; most people don’t want an empty life; they want to possess the skills to handle a busy and, yes, even complicated life” (2008).
As such, it is safe to conclude that a degree of arousal is needed in order for individuals to perceive their work to be worthy of esteem and stimulating.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it (2004), “arousal is the area where most people learn from because that’s where they’re pushed beyond their comfort zone”.
In sum, a compromise is mandatory: from the side of the human resource managers to establish reasonable boundaries and schedules, while developing a positive mindset at the heart of the workplace which rewards effort and successful performance as well as a healthy working space, which would conform itself to the WHO’s statement that:
“as health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being (WHO, 1986), a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones (WHO, 2018)”.
From a corporate perspective, this approach would allow limiting the costs linked to inefficiencies caused by excessive occupational stress; a report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that up to 10 percent of a country’s GNP could be affected by such a mishandling (Midgley, 1997).
And on the side of the individual’s perspective, by means of blending responsibility, reflection and proactive choice, rethinking the negative perception and interpretation of certain stressors that may be causing unnecessary and misconstrued distress in their lives (Le Fevre, Matheny & Kolt, 2003), with the aim to develop a more positive psychology that experiences reward in challenges.
This, in turn, will promote higher levels of subjective well-being, which will serve as additional help in terms of “buffering the negative effects of distress” (Brule & Morgan 2018).
Eustress in Sport Psychology
Aside of its voluntary application to business managerial models of social relations, if there is one domain where eustress would be encouraged as a norm, to be applied and embodied, it’s in the world of sports.
Indeed, any sort of sport on a competitive level tends to be extremely demanding, not only in terms of the physical activity itself but also the additional pressures which come along with winning, public image, and presence, etc.
As an athlete, the pace of life is intense; and whether this intensity is experienced as suffering or enjoyment boils down to everything we have mentioned previously.
The fragile balance, between optimal performance and optimal emotional and physical health, the developing of discourses which cement in the minds’ of players the conviction that they are doing this to be ‘part of something bigger’, the state of flow and hyper-awareness players undergo at the peak intensity of a match, the complete mastery over a stressor generated by a given enemy: athletes represent, to a certain extent, what it really means to be alive, to pursue what is at least subjectively meaningful for oneself of for one’s team in one’s best capacity, regardless of the manifold obstacles and fears one may encounter in the way.
The warrior-like values that lie at the heart of sports should be a source of inspiration for the rest of society, thereby empowering the self to gain perspective and control over subjectively perceived threats which only exist in the mind as so, in light of the pursuit of a stimulating, fuller life vibrant with emotion, novelty and purpose.
“Check your thoughts, challenge them and change them”
The Neuropsychology of Performance Under Pressure | Dr. Philip Hopley
Eustress vs Distress Worksheet
Can you differentiate between the different types of stress you may be experiencing on a daily basis?
If not, don’t worry: here is a worksheet we put together to help you identify positive and negative forms of stress your body generates when exposed to certain lifestyles, situations or emotions.
The practical knowledge of how this work is not enough; sometimes the best way we can make sense of them is by writing about them to explore the ways they play out in our lives.
If you feel like distress may be taking much more room in your life than eustress, you’re at the right place: let’s have a look at what you can do about it.
A first step is to keep a ‘stress diary’, that is, a diary solely dedicated to writing about your experiences of stress.
This can be a place for you to gush out about your most intense experiences in life.
If you don’t know where to start, try to remember moments in which you felt pushed out of your comfort zone, overwhelmed, let down; recall a demanding situation, a nightmarish dreaded scenario in which all odds seemed to be against you and yet you succeeded at something.
Write about how those moments felt psychologically and physically, and if you can remember them, make a list of the different thoughts that were going through your mind at that time.
When you are done, review your diary, and identify examples of eustress and distress, based on the following definitions:
- Eustress: a situation which feels stressful but in a way that you feel like you can handle it, despite feeling challenged and uncertain about its outcomes; it makes you have positive thoughts about life and yourself
- Distress: a situation which feels overwhelming and beyond your capacity to mold it in a way that could result in satisfactory outcomes; you feel like your health is deteriorating; have negative thoughts about life and yourself
Create a table with four columns, using ‘Eustress’ and ‘Distress’ as headers, and leave two blank columns after each.
Can you fit an instance you wrote about in the diary in the columns?
Great. Try to enter as many as you can.
Done? Awesome. You now have your list!
Now, next to both ‘Eustress’ and ‘Distress’ respectively, put the headers ‘physical and mental symptoms’, and ‘stressors’.
Can you remember what symptoms you experienced in both moments of eustress and distress?
What do you think the stressors were? Fill in as much space as you can in the corresponding columns.
|EUSTRESS||Physical and mental symptoms||Stressors||DISTRESS||Physical and mental symptoms||Stressors|
|I can only thrive in high-pressure environments||This type of stress makes my heart pound, my thoughts race and I feel energized||The heavy workload uncertainty and constant feedback||Giving presentations makes me feel ill||I start sweating, feeling nausea and anxious||Public speaking, a fear of making a mistake or embarrassing myself|
|Taking the airplane is a difficult thing to do||I get stomach ache, I feel nervous, irritable||Losing control, feeling powerless, fear of heights|
You have your table – now, look at the ‘distress’ column.
Highlight the areas of distress that trouble you the most.
Then, see if you notice a pattern that repeats itself regarding the situations in which you experience distress.
Do you experience distress when you feel like things are going out of control or when you have to carry out a presentation in front of an audience?
Here, the goal is to find ways to convert the distress into eustress.
No, it’s not impossible; the way you physically and mentally respond to a stressor actually depends on a range of factors, but foremostly your mindset and the kind of lifestyle you live plays a big role in determining specific outcomes. For example, making certain lifestyle adjustments, such as:
- Adopting a better diet
- Exercising more
- Sleeping better
- Meditating regularly
These can significantly change, minimize and even eliminate a stressor.
A good support system and a healthy sense of self-esteem also are essential elements which keep stress levels low.
But even if such changes are made, the stressor and distress can persist, as what fundamentally matters is what you think about the stressor and your beliefs about the way it affects you.
In short, what matters here is for you to change the belief you have about the stressor, which in turn will change whether your mind interprets the stressor as an ‘emergency threat’ or not.
Other coping strategies can also be adopted ‘in the moment’ such as breathing techniques, that release oxygen in the brain and in turn relax the muscles, slow down your heart and breathing rate, and therefore indicate to the body that the suspicions about a life-threatening danger are unfounded.
So you now have two ‘stressors’ columns, one on the eustress side and another on the distress side.
You respond differently physically and mentally to different stressors because you have different ideas and psychological associations with these.
Therefore, distress can be tackled or unlearned through a process in which you would learn to react to the very same stressors with positive emotions such as gratitude, hope, and goodwill (Selye, 1987).
Such an endeavor involves a somewhat arduous training but can be very positive in its outcomes.
Positive self-talk, reaffirming statements to yourself reminding yourself of your achievements can be extremely powerful and slowly disintegrate negative thoughts or beliefs that lie at the roots of certain stress responses.
The best way to go is ultimately for you to try different methods and see what works and what doesn’t for you – but next time you talk about your stress, let’s hope that you will not be referring to the ‘distress’ kind of stress, but your abounding eustress, instead.
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