What Is… Eustress vs. Distress

Distress vs. eustress - graphic of signs pointing to stress and more stress

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is eustress vs. distress.

The concepts of eustress and distress were first described by medical researcher Hans Selye, who defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” He believed that stress was associated with the expression of our innate drives, and that could be a good thing (eustress) or a bad thing (distress). He gave the example of a passionate kiss and a painful blow both being stressful, but the former causes eustress while the latter causes distress.

Branson and colleagues developed a psychometric test called the Adolescent Distress-Eustress Scale that asked about how people responded when they were under pressure. Eustress-consistent responses included feeling motivated, determined, and proud of oneself for dealing with the pressure. Distress-consistent responses included feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated.

Appraising stressors

Different models have been proposed to explain why a particular demand may create eustress or distress. One is the transactional approach, which suggests that our response is based on our appraisal of our ability to cope with a given demand. When we perceive our coping ability as adequate, we experience eustress, whereas if we believe that we won’t be able to cope, we experience distress.

The appraisal process includes determining whether the stressor poses a threat or poses a challenge or an opportunity. We assess whether we have the resources and strategies available now to cope, and then we re-evaluate both the stressor and our coping ability on an ongoing basis.

According to control theory, our appraisal of stressors is influenced by the degree of control we perceive that we have over our environment. The less control we feel we have, the more likely a stressor is to cause distress.

Characteristics of eustress and distress

Eustress tends to be short-term. It energizes us, and we may feel excited, enthusiastic, and hopeful. It tends to improve focus and performance, and we’re more likely to draw on problem-solving techniques in order to cope with any difficulties that arise. We’re also likely to find the task that’s the source of the stress to be meaningful, and we’re more likely to be engaged when we’re performing it.

Distress tends to be longer-term, and it decreases focus and performance. It stirs up difficult emotions, and we’re more likely to draw on emotion-focused strategies that are aimed at reducing negative emotions rather than dealing with the source of stress.

Relating this to the window of tolerance

diagram of the window of tolerance, with hyperarousal and hypoarousal on either side
NICABM

The window of tolerance is a way of representing nervous system states of hypoarousal, hyperarousal, and the happy medium in between. Hypoarousal and hyperarousal are both distress zones, while eustress falls within the window of tolerance.

Perspective matters

In a large American study, people who believed that stress affected their health (about 1/3 of participants) tended to have worse mental and physical health outcomes. People with higher reported levels of stress also had worse health outcomes, but these two effects were seen independently of each other.

To some extent, we may be able to manage the stressors that we’re exposed to, but some degree of stress is pretty inevitable. It sounds like there’s a lot of wiggle room, though, in terms of how it affects us.

When I was well, I used to respond a lot better to stress than I do now. I used to love travelling, and I liked to travel as an independent backpacker. It actually involved a pretty decent amount of stress, but it was almost entirely eustress. I found that style of travelling much more exciting than trips that involved less work. Now, though, my available resources are so low that pretty much any stressor knocks me on my ass.

What about you—what does your eustress to distress ratio look like?

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

39 thoughts on “What Is… Eustress vs. Distress”

  1. Never heard the term before, but it makes sense. Most stress is intolerable to me, but certain planned, deliberate stresses like playing games can be energizing. Not always though! Sometimes a night of games can leave me wiped out. I still have to be careful even with the good stuff!

  2. This was interesting. I had never heard of eustress before. When my mental health was better I coped with stress and took in my my stride enjoying the adventure. I moved alone to another country with a completely different culture and saw it as an adventure. I would move home at least every two years and enjoyed starting a new job and having a new home.

    Recently I realised that I found it so challenging coping with a 6 week training period at my new job. At points I felt it would break me. I was surprised my stress tolerance was so low.

      1. Oh it gives me shudders even thinking about it. I think my training period is for 6 months but I have gone down to part time hours and have a better work life balance. Hopefully that means my stress tolerance will improve

  3. It’s odd but it seems like I have both hypo- and hyper-arousal characteristics all the time. I’m often extremely anxious yet spaced out simultaneously. I think I get stressed much more easily than the typical average and over more minor things. I think I’m just nervous in general. I’ve never heard of “eustress” and can’t really think of many good examples of it in my life.

  4. Have you ever heard Dr. Robert Sapolsky talk about stress? He’s my favorite neuroscientist, and a total stress nerd. Also, great beard.
    I feel like I used to live in a state of hyperarousal. Then, I’d become exhausted and catatonic. So much work has gone into expanding my window…

  5. I learned something new. Eustress. Now that I understand, I’ll have to think about my ratio. Most of my school/work related stress is eustress. 🤷‍♀️ 50-50?

  6. I also had never heard of eustress. Thanks for the educational post. This is what hit me most – “The less control we feel we have, the more likely a stressor is to cause distress.” The feeling of control seems then to go hand in hand with eustress. Thanks again.

  7. I enjoyed this. I’d forgotten about eustress versus distress. I’m like you – I used to do better but for now, distress is mostly beyond me and I don’t pursue eustress very often. My window of tolerance took a few hits recently as well, so I’ll have to work on expanding it again. Life sure is a lot of lather, rinse, repeat.

  8. I think something will stress me out soon. One day. Medication helps. But living in my situation is very cold. I am not the kind of person that a man would want as an employee or a woman would like as a lover. Oh well.

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