Eustress vs Distress: The Difference Between Good and Bad Stress

good and bad stress

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Stress is all around these days. Whether you’re battling external stressors, struggling with mental illness, writhing from the challenges of the pandemic, or just feeling pressured at work, there’s enough stress to go around.

Is there such a thing as positive stress though? We’re going to take a look at eustress vs distress in this article, exploring some ideas on how to distinguish good stress from bad stress.

Hopefully, the ideas below can help you reinterpret some of the situations and stressors in your life and find productivity through some stress. Let’s get started.

What Is Stress in General?

We all know a little bit about how stress feels, but what’s actually going on when it occurs?

Stress is simply the body’s response to different stressors. Stressors are pressures, whether internal or external, that prompt us to activate our fight or flight responses.

Even when the situation doesn’t put us in any physical danger, the bodily reaction is the same. Naturally, this response comes in different degrees, but the experience of “stress” at large is a cocktail of physiological and psychological responses to these situations.

When a stressor enters the situation, the frontal lobe first recognizes the stimuli as a threat or challenge. That message is sent to the hypothalamus, which regulates hormonal commands throughout the body.

This recognition queues the sympathetic nervous system to start producing and directing stress hormones throughout the body. Your heart rate increases, along with your rate of breath, and your body prepares itself to fight or flee.

As we all know, stressors can last for different lengths of time. Sometimes, your stress is ever-present in life. A demanding boss never lets you off the hook or there’s a lingering financial pressure that pervades your life.

You get brief moments of respite, but most of your time is shrouded in a feeling of stress. Other times, you’re startled by a passerby and you experience the full cycle of stress and relaxation in an instant.

Separating Eustress vs Distress

good and bad stress
Knowing how to distinguish between good and bad stress can actually help to lower stress.

Now, just because the physiological response is roughly the same, doesn’t mean that all instances of stress are equal.

Every function in the body has an important purpose. We evolved to survive and utilize all aspects of our minds and bodies with efficiency. In other words, there aren’t a lot of aspects to human biology that are unnecessary for survival.

Things that don’t serve a purpose tend to use more energy, and individuals with those traits are less likely to survive. This is true across all species in nature, although there are a few interesting exceptions.

The point of that information is to point out that stress exists in the body to keep us safe. When we’re faced with a threat, our stress response allows our body to prioritize the things that will best allow us to escape or face the threat.

The trouble is that most of the stressors we face today aren’t physical ones. They’re stressors that have to do with abstract things, deadlines, and expectations.

In this modern scheme of stressors, it’s important to be able to decipher between stress that’s productive and stress that inhibits and harms you.

Understanding Distress

Generally speaking, distress is the kind of stress we associate with negative outcomes. We feel distressed when we’re behind on something, pressured, or feeling a lot of anxiety.

It’s a feeling of stress that’s disproportionate to the reality of the situation. We tend to get distressed over things that we don’t have much control over. For example, some individuals feel distressed as they get ready for work or school, fearing what others will think of their appearance.

We might distress over hypothetical dangers that are unlikely to happen. Driving to work in the morning might prompt a stress response about car accidents or unruly drivers on the road.

Further, personal relationships and expectations for others can lead to a lot of distress as well. The stress associated with imminent danger isn’t distress, because that response is appropriate to the situation.

This kind of “bad stress” exists to the degree that it outweighs your ability to respond to the stressor.

stress from good to bad
Optimum levels of stress promote creativity and productivity, but when pushed too far anxiety and frustration kick in, ultimately leading to burnout.

Understanding Eustress

Eustress is stress when it’s functioning the way it’s supposed to.

We need healthy amounts of stress to function well in normal life. There’s a car coming? Stress will alert you to get out of the way.

You have a big project coming up? A healthy amount of stress will motivate you to complete the project before it’s due. When you’re in a dangerous situation, your body’s physiological response will produce stress in an effort to help you get out of that situation.

These are all instances where there is a stressor and your mind and body respond appropriately to meet the challenge. These instances can very helpful in promoting growth in individuals.

For example, the stress of a big exam or a job interview might motivate you to do a great job in those situations. Using that stress as a motivator to succeed can send you in new directions and lead to growth.

The stress and pressure of a crowd at a concert or a competition might allow you to perform at a higher level than you otherwise would. The stress of a big date might motivate you to impress a potential partner.

Stress also keeps you safe, which is a big help.

Managing Your Stress in a Healthy Way

The primary difference between eustress and distress is the way we perceive and respond to the situation. The thoughts we have about something directly impact the way our bodies respond to that stimulus. Additionally, the way we manage our thoughts plays a big role in how much stress they produce.

If you’re old enough to read the words on this page, you’ve no doubt recognized that some people can handle stress better than others. This isn’t always the result of training or practice, but some individuals might have a natural grasp on stress management.

Whether it’s genetic, learned, or something in between, some people just get lucky when it comes to stress.

Many times, the unique properties of your brain play little tricks and make things out to be more stressful than they need to be. It could also be the case that you’ve had traumatic experiences in your life that make it hard to live down potential threats.

An old boyfriend lied to you? The stress response might be huge when your current partner gets a text.

Had a difficult time doing a presentation in college? The idea of public speaking might induce an anxiety attack.

The beautiful thing is that we can change. We can adjust the way we interpret stressors and improve our experience. In doing so, we transform distress into eustress.

But how?

Consider Counseling

If you’re plagued by stress and can’t get a hold of it, counseling might be a great option. You don’t have to have a severe mental illness to get a little help.

Counselors in Pennsylvania are available for everybody to explore their experience with. These people can help you identify instances of distress and reinterpret them. They’ll also give you ideas on how to calm yourself down when you experience a stress response.

You can also explore trauma with your counselor. There’s a good chance that chronic distress is caused by experiences of the past. Often, we can’t draw out those experiences from our memory.

The brain has a funny way of hiding those things from itself. If you want to grow though, it’s key to work through those things. Resolving internal patterns can help you see and respond to stressors clearly.

Create a Stress Journal

Another way to reexamine your stress is to write about it.

Taking those thoughts out of your head and onto the page can help clarify them. For example, let’s say you’re worried that a friend no longer likes you.

You’re in distress all day about it. The tone of your last conversation was strange and you’re worried. They’re your best friend and you don’t know what you’d do without them.

Write down the particulars of your conversation with the friend. Put down everything that you’re worried about and why. Then, ask yourself if you think you’ve got anything to worry about.

If you’re still convinced, use that stress as a motivator to solve the problem. Reach out and ask if something’s wrong. Without talking, you’ll never know.

stress journal can help problem solve
Using a stress journal not only helps you get it off your chest, but also to view your thoughts objectively helping to cope.

The ruminations and obsessions over small details are side effects of distress. They outweigh your ability to improve the situation. Writing them down can help you see them in an objective light.

Be Frank With Yourself

When you recognize stress and anxiety, ask yourself if the response is appropriate.

Is the way you’re feeling helping you to solve a problem? Is there a benefit to your distress? Does the stress outweigh the reality of the situation?

Often, recognizing distress is the best way to reduce it. Just knowing that your response is disproportionate helps to separate you from it and think objectively. That said, it’s always nice to believe that we’re right when we’re feeling something intense.

The thought that such intense emotions could be unjustified might be hard to stomach. But if the response is disproportionate, what is it really doing for you?

Be Good to Yourself

Figuring out your emotions is very hard!

These questions seem simple, but we don’t often ask them. If we don’t take a moment to reflect on how we’re feeling, our minds run loose and take us along with them.

You’re juggling biology with psychology and the situation you’re facing. That’s a lot to manage all at once. Not to mention, our stress response is a wild card before we start training it.

It can take some time to get to a position of eustress in various situations. You will slip up time and again, but note that the process requires you to dedicate yourself to change. After a while, you’ll find that your stress is where it needs to be.

Don’t be too hard on yourself though. That’s just another opportunity for distress to rise up and cause problems. Employ some self-compassion and recognize that you’re working on yourself.

self care in pennsylvania

That’s a beautiful thing! You can be proud of yourself for trying to change the way things have always been.

Build Healthy Lifestyle Habits

It’s true that a strong body leads to a healthier mind, not just in the old-timey philosophical sense, but in a very real scientific way. When we feed ourselves healthy foods, our bodies are better able to adapt to stress and respond to situations. Additionally, a poor diet can lead to physical stress that’s hard to identify.

If you start to exercise on a regular basis, you might notice that you feel naturally calm. Your mind might be at ease, and you might not be as prone to distress.

Those changes can come naturally. If you’re feeling a lot of distress and you don’t have a decent diet or any exercise to speak of, never fear! That just means you have some clear paths toward improvement.

Diet and exercise play a massive role in the function of our bodies and the management of our emotions. You might find that a chain reaction of eustress and positive changes is waiting if you just take a few steps in the direction of physical health.

Recognize Positive Stress

Finally, make a note when you feel an appropriate response to a stressful situation.

eustress vs distress in pa

Identify what good stress feels like, so you can compare it to bad stress. Distinguishing those feelings is a big help in recognizing instances when your response is too intense for your own good.

Want to Learn More About Mental Health?

Understanding the difference between eustress vs distress is an important piece of the mental health puzzle. There’s a lot more to learn though, and we’re here to help. If you could stand to get a better grasp on your emotional health, you’ve come to the right place. Talk with us for more ideas on how to be good to yourself, improve your mental health, and recognize different types of stress.

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

All articles are written in conjunction with the Makin Wellness Research Team.

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