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.
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
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.
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?
- Branson, V., Dry, M. J., Palmer, E., & Turnbull, D. (2019). The adolescent distress-eustress scale: Development and validation. SAGE Open, 9(3), 2158244019865802.
- Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.
- McGowan, J., Gardner, D., & Fletcher, R. (2006). Positive and negative affective outcomes of occupational stress. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 35(2), 92-98.
- Rodríguez, I., Kozusznik, M. W., & Peiró, J. M. (2013). Development and validation of the Valencia Eustress-Distress Appraisal Scale. International Journal of Stress Management, 20(4), 279.
- Selye, H. (1976). Stress without Distress. In G. Serban (Ed.), Psychopathology of Human Adaptation. Springer, Boston, MA.
- Tocino-Smith, J. (2019). What is eustress? A look at the psychology and benefits. PositivePsychology.com.
- Walinga, J., (2014. Stress and coping. In J. Walinga & C. Stangor (Eds.), Introduction to psychology – 1st Canadian edition.
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.