Stress management often teaches that there are two kinds of stress – distress, which is what we usually think of as stress, and “eustress” – stress that is good for you. The idea of eustress – the word itself – came from Hans Selye, a pioneer in understanding how our bodies respond to challenges. Selye was an endocrinologist, focusing on hormones and the systems that regulate them.
One of Selye’s great insights is that when we experience a change or other challenge, we will have a physical stress reaction, whether we see it as positive or negative. For example, graduation from high school or college – an event the graduate certainly considers positive – is stressful. And of course it is – a fresh graduate faces uncertainty about what will happen next. Their social support network, a key source of resiliency, is disrupted as they lose touch with classmates.
Selye’s fundamental insight, that both positive and negative events are stressful, has been demonstrated to be true in many, many research projects. Cognitive neuroscience is unveiling more of the mechanisms and complexities of our physical and emotional responses to stress.
Talking about “distress” and “eustress” is confusing. Psychologists use them because in casual talk, ee use the word “stress” to refer to both the cause and our reaction. “Graduation is stressful” and “I’m stressed about graduation” are both reasonable sentences, but they are saying two different things. The first is about what happened, the second is the graduate’s reaction to it.
Let’s swap in the other words. “Graduation is distressing me” sounds reasonable, but means the same thing as “Graduation is stressing me.” Let’s try the other one. “Graduation is eustressing me” not only sounds awkward, it doesn’t make any sense, since “eustress” is about the graduate’s reaction. The accurate way to use the word would be “I am having a eustressful reaction to graduation” – a sentence that could only be pleasing to a psychologist.
Using these words was been based on the belief that the difference between eustress and distress is the intensity of our reaction. We taught people that too much stress is bad for their health, so we should reduce and avoid stress in order to avoid crossing the line from eustress into distress. Now we know that there is no such line.
In recent years, convincing evidence shows that our perception makes a big difference in how our body reacts to stress. If we see a threat, our bodies react in ways that probably will cause illness in the long run. If we see a challenge, stress becomes our friend, we perform better and don’t undergo the physical reactions that cause health problems.
Our perceptions of whether we are facing a threat or a challenge are influenced by how much social support we have. When we are alone, almost anything will look like a threat. Isolation is toxic to our health. Values and spiritual beliefs also make a difference in whether we perceive stressful occasions as threats or challenges.
Instead of talking about distress and eustress, we should be teaching people that they can handle enormous amounts of stress and thrive, then give them tools – attitudes and actions – that transform how they think and react to life’s challenges.