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The Differences Between Two Types of Stress: Distress vs. Eustress


Stress is our body’s way of responding to challenging situations. Everyone will experience some form of stress during their lifetime. However, many people are unaware that there are two separate categories of stress: eustress and distress.

Distress: Causes and Symptoms

Distress, otherwise known as ‘bad stress,’ occurs when something becomes difficult for an individual to cope with. In extreme cases, distress can result in anxiety and/or depression. Common causes of distress include excessive job demands, conflict with coworkers/family members, financial problems, fears (i.e., fear of pubic speaking/fear of heights), unrealistic expectations, and repetitive thought patterns. Distress causes tension to build within the body and mind, and the task at hand suddenly seems daunting. Furthermore, it may seem as though distress is never ending and often results in poor decision making skills. Physiological symptoms commonly associated with distress include high blood pressure, rapid, shallow breathing, muscle aches, and headaches. Behavioral symptoms include over or under eating, negative coping skills (i.e., avoiding the task at hand), and maladaptive behaviors such as smoking or drinking.

Eustress: Causes and Symptoms

Contrastingly, eustress is perceived as a ‘beneficial stress’ or ‘adaptive stress,’ which motivates you to continue working through the task at hand. Eustress can be psychological or physical (i.e., physical activity). Eustress is an important component of everyday life, as good amounts of stress motivate us, encourage us to challenge ourselves, and encourage productiveness. Furthermore, eustress often provides a sense of fulfillment when a task is completed. The human body cannot physically differentiate between different types of stress; it is in fact how the individual perceives a certain stressor, that results in the feeling of eustress or distress. That is, eustress is not a different type of stressor, it is a positive reaction to stress, which results in a desire to achieve and overcome an obstacle.

How do they Differ?

Eustress and Distress differ in many ways. Firstly, eustress is often a short-term sensation, and is perceived as something that we as individuals can control. Eustress motivates us and results in the focus of energy to the task at hand, thus improving our performance on said task. Contrastingly, distress can be either short or long-term, and is perceived as something that is out of our control. Distress is an unpleasant feeling, which demotivates us and drains us of the energy we require to overcome a challenge or complete a task. It can also lead to other mental health problems including depression and anxiety related disorders. The differences between eustress and distress will be further highlighted using the following example.

Imagine that tomorrow, you win the lottery. You have millions of dollars to do with what you will. The first thing you do is quit your job, buy a new car, and a new house. You are absolutely thrilled and cannot remember ever being this happy. Then, relatives begin to call you and tell you how desperately they need your help, how desperately they need your money. Some of these relatives are so distant, that you have never even spoken to them before! Before you know it, charities begin calling for donations. Now, you have to worry about friends, family, and charities wanting your money, and you feel completely torn about who you should help. Worrying about this keeps you up at night, you cannot sleep or eat without worrying about your situation. You are completely stressed out by the changes in your life and the strains being put on you. The stress has completely consumed you. This would be classified as or ‘distress.’ 

Now, consider someone else who has won the lottery. He becomes motivated by the idea of managing millions of dollars, and creating a life he has always dreamed of. People still ask him for money, but he knows exactly who he would like to help and how he would like to help them. He sticks to his plans. He invests his money wisely, and hires someone to help him manage his funds. He starts the business he has always dreamed of, and goes to sleep every night imagining the challenges he will need to overcome, but also the rewards that will come with tackling these challenges. This motivates him to keep moving forward, and the changes and strains in his life are ultimately bringing out the best in him. This would be classified as ‘eustress.’ 

To conclude, distress arises when we perceive a challenging situation as being harmful, or if we believe we are not capable of coping with the demands of a situation. In contrast, eustress is not simply a better ‘type’ of stress, but rather a more adaptive perception of, and reaction to a stressful situation.

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References :

[0]Kupriyanov, R., & Zhandov, R. (2014). The eustress concept: Problems and outlooks. World Journal of Medical Sciences, 11, 179-185. doi: 10.5829/idosi.wjms.2014.11.2.8433

[1]Le Fevre, M., & Matheny, J. (2003). Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18, 726-744. doi: 10.1108/02683940310502412

[2]Parker, K.N., & Ragsdale, J.M. (2015). Effects of distress and eustress on changes in fatigue from waking to working. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7, 293-315. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12049


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