Yes, yes, yes, stress is important, nay, necessary for survival. Despite being a biological system critical for our health and wellbeing, however, the human stress response is a rather blunt instrument. We have the same surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine each time we encounter a stresser, whether it be an injury, a verbal attack, exercise, or anxiety about a future event. Even though these very different situations require different responses, our body’s chemistry treats them essentially equally.
But I’m sure we can all think of situations that we would categorize as “stressful” but actually were positive. For example, when I finally ran 3 miles without a walking break….I was stressed. My body was tired and sore. But I was grinning from ear to ear. Or when I gave a talk a few weeks ago at a major conference. My knees may have been shaking as I stood up at the podium, but it was invigorating and exciting.
What differentiates the stressers that have a positive impact on our wellbeing and those that are negative?
The interesting thing is that positive or negative stress has less to do with the actual event or information we experience and more to do with our perception of the event. To use my public speaking example, when I stood up at the podium, despite the fact that my knees were shaking, I said to myself “this is so exciting!”. The situation could have easily caused negative stress, on the other hand, if I instead said “Sam, get yourself together, you have to do this right!” In one mindset, I was accepting the stress and turning it to a positive, while in the other, I would have been berating myself for having the physiologic stress reaction in the first place.
Scientists have named these two forms of stress: distress, the commonly-known, negative side of stressful situations, and eustress, the less-talked about, positive experience of stress.
Once again, any stressful event can trigger either distress or eustress, but the difference lies in how we experience that stress. Working hard before a deadline can cause distress if it is accompanied by negative mind talk about how we shouldn’t be doing this, it is too hard, or we hate our job, but it can generate eustress if we truly believe in the goal we are pursuing, if this project is bringing us closer to our teammates, and if we are enjoying the work.
Even though in some cases, we might dislike the fact that we will get a surge of adrenaline and cortisol every time we experience a surprising, novel, or scary situation, it is actually pretty cool to realize that we have the power to channel that physiologic response positively. But how do we promote the eustress over the distress?
Turn Distress into Eustress
The first step to turn distress into eustress is to use the strategies I laid out in this post about dealing with acute stressers. No matter what is going on, it’s worth is to keep your body calm and take time to process what’s happening with the stresser before you rush to address it, be it positively or negatively.
The next steps are primarily mental exercises because, as we discussed, the difference between distress and eustress is mostly in our reaction to the stresser.
Enhance feelings of eustress by emphasizing how the experience contributes to personal growth and the greater good, while acknowledging the challenge and feasibility of the situation.
Personal growth is an important aspect of cultivating eustress because it makes the challenge of the situation worth the extra effort. Even if it is not directly positively impacting you, but it helps those you love (i.e., if it’s for the greater good), you can view the situation more positively – it is a trade you are willing to make. Feasibility is important, because if you feel that the experience is so far out of your reach that you will never overcome it, you will be feel negative stress. If, on the other hand, the situation is both challenging and feasible, you get the greatest personal growth and enjoyment from the experience.
Take a second to think about a situation you’ve experienced that was stressful, but positive. Can you pick out where personal growth, greater good, challenge, and feasibility fit in?
For my example of my public speaking a few weeks ago, yes, it was a challenge – it took a lot of time and effort to prepare – but I knew it was feasible, because I felt capable of putting together a presentation, but additionally had external resources – my colleagues – to provide critical feedback before the presentation. It was an opportunity for personal growth because it is a goal of mine to pursue more public speaking opportunities. I considered it an act for the greater good as well because I was sharing important research I had conducted related to cardiovascular health. All of these aspects combined to make it a very eustressful event.
Are you having problems finding the eustress in some activities? Here are some critical questions you can ask yourself to help you reframe these experiences:
- What is the purpose of this event/experience?
- What are the personal benefits of this event/experience?
- What are the external benefits (i.e., benefits to others) of this event/experience?
- Do I need to call upon outside resources to help me accomplish this event/experience?
- What aspect of this event/experience can I find enjoyment in?
Now of course, there are some situations that are plain distressful, and no amount of brain play is going to make you like the situation at hand.
But, if you can work to transform some of your stressers, the ones that are not objectively bad but that you are treating negatively, into eustress, the negative effects of the truly distressing events will be mitigated.
A last benefit of distinguishing events in this way is that it can help you to determine which areas of your life are the sources of true distress versus eustress. Recognizing the pain points in your life can be an important wake-up call that you need to make changes.
Care to share how you’ve transformed distress into eustress in the past? Leave a comment or tweet to me at @HappyHealthySam!Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day,
Samantha Attard, PhD, is the founder of Happy Healthy Human. Sam is a performance coach, yoga instructor, and makes delicious snacks to help you eat with intention. Learn more here.