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Distress versus eustress: Learn all about the different types of stress

August 19, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is eustress?

What is distress?

6 differences between eustress and distress

6 similarities between eustress and distress

8 examples of distress and eustress

What are the signs of eustress and distress?

How to prevent distress and promote eustress

When to seek help for distress

​​We encounter many different types of stress in our lives. Some last longer than others, while some are more positive than others. 

Yes, we just said that there's such a thing called positive stress. It's called eustress, and we should learn to love it. But we can't forget about negative stress, which is called distress.

The distress versus eustress discussion teaches us their differences and similarities while providing examples. Learning how to identify and apply coping strategies to distress and harnessing our eustress is crucial. Let's begin by breaking down definitions of distress versus eustress.

 

What is eustress?

Eustress is a type of good stress that makes us more motivated, focused, and energized. Even though it exists on a short-term basis, eustress can support the growth mindset we need to learn new skills and face our challenges. We know that the pressure we’re under will have positive effects, making us eager to perform well or follow through. 

When people experience eustress in stressful situations, it benefits their well-being. It can make them excited, optimistic, and eventually proud of their accomplishments. This kind of good, positive stress helps us deliver results at work or in our personal lives.

Think about someone you know who was recently promoted. Yes, taking on more responsibility can be scary, and transitioning out of an old role is bittersweet. But moving up in your career and starting a new job is exciting, regardless of the stressors that come with it.

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What is distress?

Distress is what most discussions about stress revolve around. This kind of stress is what we want to avoid and manage, as negative stress makes us worry, feel anxious, and doubt ourselves. 

Whether acute or chronic, distress that isn't treated can cause us many physical and mental health issues. In 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly half of adults said that their behavior was negatively impacted by stress. And while there are many potential sources of stress, America’s future is a significant source of stress for 77% of adults. These external stressors often feel out of our control or unmanageable, which leads us to spiral or experience anxiety

And the physical problems that come with chronic stress include an increased risk of heart disease, cardiovascular problems, a damaged immune system, and gastrointestinal issues. We might experience negative effects like high blood pressure, elevated heart rates, and trouble sleeping.

6 differences between eustress and distress

Learning what the differences are between distress and eustress isn't rocket science. It's fairly straightforward to know that one is positive while the other is negative. But both types of stress impact our minds and bodies differently. We need to review their differences to better understand both types of stressors and how they treat us.

Here are six differences:

  1. Eustress keeps you energized and awake, but distress may exhaust you, so you sleep more
  2. Eustress can boost your mood, whereas distress can lower your mood with negative thoughts
  3. Distress can have mental health consequences like depression, but eustress improves your well-being
  4. Distress can cause anxiety, while eustress makes you feel excited and helps your confidence
  5. Eustress fuels you to be more productive and take action, while stress can make you feel overwhelmed and almost paralyzing 
  6. Eustress improves your performance and quality of work, whereas distress decreases it

It can be helpful to consider what stressors you face in your daily life and think about how you work with them. As you can see, a life dominated by distress can be damaging to your health and sense of well-being. Distress works against your internal motivation and feeling of self-efficacy, not to mention making it hard to achieve or enjoy work success.

6 similarities between eustress and distress

Now's time for the interesting part. We're going to examine what eustress and distress have in common. Let's break down six ways that distress and eustress are similar:

1. Both cause our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol 

2. They force us to leave our comfort zone and experience new things, like a change of any kind

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3. We can experience mental and physical health problems from both of them

4. While distress can be long-term, it can also be on a short-term basis like eustress is

5. When we're in either of these stressful situations, we have a fight or flight stress response

6. We can track both types of stress to evaluate how they make us feel

8 examples of distress and eustress

We can explain what eustress and distress are with examples. These examples tie into our professional and personal lives to show us how stress impacts us everywhere. You don’t leave your working brain at the office at the end of the day.

Here are four examples of both distress and eustress to familiarize yourself with:

Examples of distress:

  1. Your manager and supervisor are away, increasing your workload and responsibility beyond what you think you can handle
  2. Your workplace doesn't value or uphold diversity and inclusion as they claim they do (or any other instance where company actions are noticeably different from stated values)
  3. Your student loans payments are eating up a large part of your paycheck, creating financial stress and disagreements with your partner
  4. A long-term relationship is ending, through breakup, divorce, illness, or death

businesswoman-talking-on-telephone-at-office-distress-vs-eustress

Examples of eustress:

  1. There's a serious problem that needs to be addressed at work, and you're being proactive in solving it
  2. You've just been assigned to lead a special initiative, and you aren't sure what it will involve
  3. You're training for your first marathon
  4. You're moving to a new city for your dream job where you don't know anyone
  5. At work, you made a costly mistake, but you're being responsible and accountable

What are the signs of eustress and distress?

Identifying and diagnosing your stress can be difficult. There isn't one singular test that can tell you what your stress levels are or if the other issues you encounter are because of stress. But, you can pay attention to some signs that act as clues for eustress and distress.

For eustress, you'll see your motivation spike. Something is inspiring you to keep working, and that something is eustress. Take note of your performance. Are you improving and progressing with your skills? That's because your eustress is opening you up to learning, like starting in a new role or strengthening your interpersonal relationships.

man-having-meeting-with-team-at-hybrid-office-distress-vs-eustress

You'll also notice that your confidence grows as your improved performance show you your capabilities. You're in the mood to act, not sit back and wait. 

For distress, it feels like you can't focus on anything, and you aren't satisfied with the results of your efforts, no matter how hard you work. Studies have found that high-stress levels and poor academic performances are linked.

The more stressed students are, the less they learn and the poorer they perform. Their coping abilities to improve their grades faltered, harming their confidence. From there, the cycle continues. 

When you don't know what to do with your energy or you can't piece things together, it's a sign that you're experiencing distress. You may feel paralyzed, causing you to procrastinate and feel increasingly insecure about your actions.

You can also experience fear of the possible threat and worry, like failure or punishment for poor performance. If you notice you're experiencing more anxiety than usual, that's a strong indicator that you’re feeling distressed. 

How to prevent distress and promote eustress

When we talk about how to prevent distress, we first need to understand that there's no way to banish stress from our lives. It'll pop up everywhere, and sometimes, it's out of our control. But with hard work and effort, stress management is possible.

We can take action to try to change it to eustress and find a positive outlook. Our stress won't magically turn into eustress overnight, but our actions won't go unnoticed.

Here are nine ways you can prevent negative stress and encourage positive stress:

  1. Focus on what you can control in the present moment
  2. Try to find the meaning and purpose in stressful events
  3. Think of an action plan to help you mitigate your stressors and stressful stimuli 
  4. Take time to evaluate what stressors you could remove from your life
  5. Practice self-compassion and empathy toward yourself
  6. Make time for mindfulness and other deep breathing exercises
  7. Lean on loved ones, family members, and friends for support
  8. Learn how to regulate your emotions and feel in control of them
  9. Practice ways to release stress and relax, like physical activity and self-care

woman-learning-the-janu-sirsasana-pose-distress-vs-eustress

When to seek help for distress

We can't talk about distress versus eustress and not mention the importance of seeking professional help if our stress levels become overwhelming. Our mentors, loved ones, coworkers, and friends can be great for supporting us through some stressful situations, but a professional is different.

Your coworkers will understand if you need to rant about late deliverables. But speaking with a professional about the negative stress we experience can help us immensely.

The mental health and physical problems we endure because of our stress cannot be left alone. It can cause anxiety and cardiovascular issues, damage our self-esteem, and more. We deserve to find a way to relieve our bad stress and live more meaningful healthier lives. 

Talking to a professional can help us identify the sources of distress in our lives and what change we can create to eliminate them. Above all, we have to remember that we aren't alone in experiencing negative stress, so we shouldn't have to battle it alone.

Find someone who can help you unpack your causes of distress. BetterUp can help you develop your coping abilities and make an action plan that manages your stress to devote your energy to what you value in life. 

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Published August 19, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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