By: Danny Moon

Many people view stress as 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 the 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 signals to 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 help provide the 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

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. 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. 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 and 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 several physical and mental illnesses, as well as impairing a person’s ability to function.

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.


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.

Whether or not a person experiences good or bad stress when they encounter a stressor depends on some individual and situational factors. Certain factors are more closely associated with eustress while others are associated with distress.

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.

  • Money
  • 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 the power to influence or direct the outcome they want.

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, the increased cortisol levels can result in many physical and psychological illnesses and issues, including:

  • 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:

  • Impaired functioning in one or more areas 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

Now that we know the good, the bad, and the ugly about stress we can manage our lives. Continue to enjoy the good stress and manage the bad stress, and if you notice the stress becomes ugly, seek professional assistance.

By: Danny Moon