Eustress vs. Distress

Stress is a common concern in today’s fast-paced life. But is all stress inherently bad? Turns out, there are two kinds of stress: Eustress and distress – both of which can motivate us in different ways.

To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Nanika Coor, a Licensed Psychologist, and Joel Kosman, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. We learned about eustress, distress, and how our perceptions can shape how we interpret “stress” as a concept in the first place.

What is eustress?

“Eustress is a kind of ‘doable’ stress,” explains Dr. Coor. “You’re faced with a challenge, but a challenge you know you can handle – and you actually look forward to handling that challenge. You feel out of your comfort zone in a good way.”

Its name stems from the Greek prefix eu-, which means “good” – implying a beneficial element to its presence.

“When in a state of eustress, a person feels absorbed in, and intensely focused on, the task at hand,” says Dr. Coor. “There is a sense of satisfaction, motivation, excitement and potential in the experience of eustress. It lasts for a short period of time, and is a positive experience.”

Examples of eustress

“One might feel eustress when embarking on life milestones usually perceived to be positive,” explains Dr. Coor.

Examples might include:

“All of these events may cause stress, but they are within a person’s ability to cope,” she adds. “Positive stress can lead to personal growth.”

What is distress?

Distress is typically accompanied by feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, which are perceived as negative and unwanted.

“You’re out of your comfort zone – and it feels worrisome, dangerous or even life threatening. This is a kind of stress that exceeds a person’s physical, emotional or psychological ability to cope with a situation,” explains Dr. Coor.

Distress hinders a person’s ability to function normally, communicate and think clearly. If it continues on a long-term basis, it can become detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health.

Examples of distress

Events that could result in distress include:

Eustress vs. Distress: Does it depend on perspective?

That said, it’s important to note that different people will have different reactions to every situation – so it’s impossible to categorize every situation as universally in the distress or eustress camp. Rather, our interpretation of events depends on our personal experiences and perspectives.

As Kosman points out, “It’s not the stressor itself so much as it is the person’s stress response that is critical.” And when stress becomes too much, our bodies can actually take a hit.

In that vein, Kosman explains that in his work, he’s found it helpful to think of stress more neutrally. Whether it’s eustress or distress, a better approach may be to examine the stressor and explore why it creates the challenge(s) that it does.

How to better manage stress

Shifting your interpretation of stress can help you better manage stress.

Take, for example, a  stressor that might be considered universally negative – such as the death of a loved one. “It is important for the person to be able to experience the sadness, or other emotion inherent in the event,” explains Kosman. “But, as a stressor, the goal would be to try to channel the force of the stress into an opportunity for growth.”

Another example is a feeling frustrated at work or the assignment of a big project on a tight deadline. “Those are stressful events, yes, but whether they ultimately impact a person in a positive or negative way is a function mostly of how the person interprets the event and how they respond to it,” Kosman points out.

“If the interpretation of the event is along the lines of, ‘My boss is out to get me’ or ‘I’ll never be able to do this,’ then the impact of the stressful event will be negative – and, not coincidentally, demotivating.”

On the other hand, “if someone can get a bit beneath the surface and see what underlies the impact of the event," they may discover the reason for their reaction and turn it into a positive, motivating force.

“Perhaps their work means a lot to them, and that helps explain their initial response (getting upset) AND gives them an affirmative reason to approach the event (work is important to me and therefore I want to succeed). The event then becomes motivating.”

Bottom line: If the interpretation of the impact of the event is that it is overwhelming or destructive or otherwise negative, it’s going to be that much harder to move forward.

Alternatively, if you’re able to tap into the growth-oriented aspects of the impact – and see and understand the event as important, say, rather than frightening – then therein lies the key.