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Dr Donna Grant

Page medically reviewed by Dr Donna Grant (BSc, MBBS, MRCPsych) Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

Stress is an unavoidable part of modern life. However, not all stress is detrimental. Understanding the nuances of stress is crucial for our mental health and wellbeing. This article delves into the concepts of eustress and distress, two fundamentally different types of stress that impact us in different ways.

What is eustress?

Eustress, often termed 'positive stress,' is a concept that can play a pivotal role in motivating and energising you. It's the type of stress you might experience when you’re excited or positively challenged.

Unlike distress, eustress is short-term and feels as though it’s within our coping abilities. It's the kind of stress you feel when you're riding a rollercoaster, excited about a new opportunity, or even when you're engaged in a challenging but enjoyable hobby.

Eustress is something we all experience, and shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as negative. It can be essential for your development, leading to improved performance, better problem-solving skills and enhanced creativity.

Situations where eustress arise can be tough – like training and competing in a marathon – but this type of stress can be positively harnessed to motivate you to achieve. It prompts us to adapt, learn and grow, contributing positively to our overall mental wellbeing.

What is distress?

Distress is a form of stress you probably have a greater understanding of. It’s likely that you’ll suffer from distress when challenges or demands exceed our perceived ability to cope – driving harmful symptoms of stress.

Unlike eustress, which can be energising, distress can be depleting. It happens when you face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors, leading to a sense of being overburdened or overwhelmed. You might find yourself in distress in situations like prolonged work-related pressure, facing persistent financial difficulties, or dealing with chronic health issues.

If left unmanaged, distress can lead to serious mental health concerns like anxiety disorders or depression. Understanding and identifying distress is crucial for effectively managing your stress levels and maintaining good mental health.

What is the difference between eustress and distress?

The primary difference between eustress and distress lies in the effects they can have on our health and wellbeing. Eustress acts as a positive force that encourages us to face challenges with a sense of purpose and vigour. If you achieve your planned goals and objectives in line with what’s driving the eustress, it can lead to a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Distress, in contrast, can leave you feeling overwhelmed and drained, leading to a decrease in performance. Over time, this might negatively impact your mental health.

One key factor between these two types of stressors is control. Eustress is usually associated with situations where we feel a sense of control and believe that the stressor is something we can handle. Distress is often linked to situations where we feel a lack of control and see the stressor as a threat.

Examples of eustress and distress

Understanding some practical examples of eustress and distress can help you to distinguish between the two.

Here are a few real world examples of each:

Examples of positive stress (eustress)

  • Achieving personal goals: successfully reaching personal milestones, such as running a marathon or learning a new skill
  • Career advancement: receiving a promotion, starting a new job, or embarking on a new business venture
  • Educational challenges: enrolling in further education, studying for exams, or learning a new language
  • Life events: planning a wedding, preparing for a holiday, or moving to a new home
  • Creative projects: engaging in artistic activities, writing a book, or starting a blog
  • Physical exercise: participating in sports, fitness challenges, or a new exercise regime
  • Social interactions: meeting new people, hosting events, or socialising in new environments

Examples of negative stress (distress)

  • Work-related pressure: experiencing tight deadlines, high workloads, or job insecurity
  • Financial difficulties: struggling with debt, managing expenses, or facing a loss of income
  • Health concerns: dealing with chronic illness, injury, or mental health issues
  • Relationship problems: navigating conflicts, break-ups, or family disputes
  • Environmental factors: living in a noisy, polluted, or unsafe area
  • Lack of work-life balance: struggling to manage professional and personal responsibilities
  • Unexpected life events: coping with the loss of a loved one,  car accident, or other traumatic event

What are positive responses to stress?

Adopting positive responses to stress is crucial for turning potential challenges into opportunities for growth. Here, we outline some examples of how you can deal with stress better:

  1. Mindfulness and awareness: being aware of your reactions to stress and using mindfulness practices can reduce stress. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can be beneficial in reducing the negative impact of stress
  2. Physical activity and nutrition: regular exercise and a balanced diet play a critical role in managing your mental health. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, while a nutritious diet can help with everything from memory to energy levels
  3. Positive reframing: changing the way you perceive stress can transform your response to it. Viewing stressful situations as opportunities to learn and grow can alter your experience of stress and turn situations that once caused you anxiety into positive experiences
  4. Seeking support: building a support network of friends, family, or professionals can provide emotional support and practical advice during stressful times. Sometimes, just talking about what’s causing you stress can be a huge relief
  5. Time management: prioritising tasks, setting realistic goals, and taking regular breaks can prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed. Many of these are related to your mental health at work. A big driver of negative stress can be taking on too much in the office – applying these strategies can help you reduce the negative effects
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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020  or submit an online enquiry form here. 

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