The term eustress was coined in the 1970s by an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, who combined the Greek prefix eu- (meaning “good”) with stress. Eustress, therefore, literally means “good stress.”
Eustress, or good stress, is considered to be beneficial for motivation, performance and emotional well-being. It’s the type of stress that someone perceives as a worthwhile challenge rather than an annoyance or fearful experience.
Since stress — the body’s response to changes that create taxing demands — comes in many forms, it can have a wide variety of effects on someone’s health and happiness. Today, experts consider there to be two main subgroups of stressors: good and bad stress.
Research has shown that a positive mindset is key when it comes to eustress. A stressor must be perceived by the person experiencing it to be good.
Events in life are ultimately up for interpretation — meaning that the same event or challenge may be a good stress for one person and a bad stress for another. One’s interpretation of a stressful event ultimately depends on his or her current situation and feelings of control, desirability, location and timing.
What makes a stressor beneficial is that it functions as a positive challenge. It helps motivate a person toward self-improvement and reaching goals, without overwhelming her/him.
What makes distress and eustress different? As you can probably tell by now, eustress is a form of “good stress” — the type that tends to increase energy levels, health and positive feelings — while distress is the opposite, the type that has negative implications.
The main difference between eustress and distress is the amount of personal control that one feels over a stressor. Distress tends to occur when a stressor cannot be resolved through coping mechanisms or adaptations.
Eustress typically enhances one’s functioning and may include responding to stressors with feelings such as:
On the other hand, when someone experiences a distressing event, it usually interferes with her/his ability to accomplish a job or task and quality of life. Distress can cause someone to feel:
It may seem obvious, but examples of distress can include death of a loved one, divorce, illness, injury or hospitalization, breakups, unemployment, addictions, or abuse. You can see how this differs from events like marriage or starting a new job.
Researchers have found that both eustress and distress cause neuroendocrine changes in the body, although different types. Catecholamines and cortisol levels change rapidly in response to stressful events, due to activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
While cortisol (a stress hormone) can increase in response to good or bad stress, it tends to remain elevated when someone is dealing with chronic, unresolved stress. This can be dangerous and contribute to increased oxidative stress, higher risk for disease development and even shortened life span.
When people experience positive stress, they adapt either cognitively or physically (or both) and basically become healthier, stronger and possibly happier. They are more likely to experience positive feelings like pride, fulfillment and gratitude, and may become physically stronger too.
Studies also show that manageable levels of life stress may enhance psycho-biological resilience to oxidative damage.
Eustress has many things in common with hormesis, which is considered a favorable/beneficial biological response to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. The term hormesis comes from the ancient Greek word hormáein, which means “to set in motion, impel, urge on.”
These can include:
Positive stressors can be both psychological and physical. What are some examples of eustress?
Positive stress examples in everyday life can include:
In some cases, a stressor may cause both eustress and distress. For example, having a baby, attending graduate school or moving to a new location may be meaningful life events, but they can also be stressful.
In the long term, these are worthwhile experiences, but in the short term it’s important to practice naturally stress-relieving activities to help prevent feeling overwhelmed.
One of the keys to benefitting the most from good stress is to experience it at “moderate/intermediate doses.” Too much of any type of stress can actually wind up having negative effects because it feels overwhelming, while just the right amount leads to positive adaptations.
In order for symptoms of eustress to be beneficial, someone has to feel that he/she is in control and that the challenge is worthwhile but accomplishable, rather than that person has no choice, is unprepared, is in danger or is being treated unfairly.
Wikipedia sums this point up nicely:
Eustress occurs when the gap between what one has and what one wants is slightly pushed, but not overwhelmed. The goal is not too far out of reach but is still slightly more than one can handle. This fosters challenge and motivation since the goal is in sight.
So how can you increase eustress in your life? Remember that how you perceive your given situation determines the effect that the stressor will have on you.
Here are some tips for making the most of challenging situations: