Good stress?

To Alice, Is there such a thing as GOOD stress? signed, frustrated

Dear frustrated, 

Stress is often referred to colloquially in only negative terms, but it doesn't have to be all bad. Eustress, sometimes called constructive stress, is a common stress response that helps people meet the demands of life. It’s caused by challenging yet attainable and enjoyable or worthwhile tasks and pushes individuals to keep working to accomplish goals they’ve set. For example, practicing for a performance may be considered a form of eustress—the desire to perform as well as possible motivates people to work harder, resulting in better outcomes. In addition, eustress hormones have been found to improve memory and cognition. Most people are typically able to manage this kind of stress on their own. It’s worth noting that there are other schools of thought that disagree with the idea of eustress. Read on to learn about the other theories around this highly debated topic!

The stress that may be more commonly talked about is distress, sometimes called destructive stress, and is a response that results from feeling overwhelmed by demands, losses, or perceived threats. This type of stress can cause psychological suffering and pose serious health risks and can even become chronic and difficult to recover from, if left unmanaged.   

Regardless of the type of stress, the brain will detect a threat from an external stimulus (whether that’s a difficult exam or an angry dog) and activate a stress response, enabling a surge of hormones that will increase heart rate and blood pressure. Once the threat is gone, the heart rate, blood pressure, and hormones return to their previous state, calming the body down. In terms of evolution, this “fight or flight” (and sometimes “freeze”) response serves as a protective survival tactic in all animals, with the brain signaling other parts of the body to act.  

Because the body’s physiological response to stressors is generated the same way regardless of the outcome, some experts from different fields and professions are skeptical about the legitimacy of categorizing eustress as a “positive” type of stress. Whether or not a stress response is positive or negative is only determined by the outcome which is influenced greatly by time constraints as well as performance. Another consideration that experts have with the concept of “eustress” is that it is often used interchangeably to describe both the stressor (the thing causing the reaction) and the stress response (the reaction itself). The notion that eustress is merely beneficial as opposed to distress has been criticized for being too vague and leaving too much room for interpretation and variation. Ultimately, there are some doubts about whether eustress and distress are different at all, with some proposing that the intensity of the stressor and the strength of the reaction are actually what differentiate stresses. 

An alternative framework for understanding stress states that only stressors that upset homeostasis—or our body’s stability, balance, and ability to regulate itself—cause stress. This framework also purports that stress isn’t a stressor (the cause) nor a response (the reaction); it’s merely a state where homeostasis is upset, and how we choose to act on that influences the outcome.  

Another theory about what causes stress is the Conservation of Resources theory that states eustress stems from gaining or maintaining resources and distress from the loss of them. Thus, in order to avoid distress, people strive to maintain, protect, and build these resources, which include things such as tangible objects and possessions, life conditions, personal characteristics, and more. 

Overall, the notion that a positive type of stress even exists is still heavily debated, but it's widely accepted that there are negative effects of stress. To reduce the likelihood of experiencing these negative effects, one option is to actively shift one’s mindset to see stressors as motivators rather than obstacles. This cognitive technique allows stress to become a positive rather than negative mental force, promoting healthy resilience and enabling individuals to better cope with stressful events over time. If these reframing strategies aren’t proving to be effective, it may be helpful to find other ways to manage it. Relaxing by listening to music, practicing meditation, being physically active, or spending time with friends can help manage stress levels. If you find that you're experiencing overwhelming stress that inhibits your daily functioning, you may want to seek support from a mental health provider. 

With these stress management techniques, you might find yourself feeling less "Frustrated" and more "Encouraged" or "Exhilarated!" 

Last updated Nov 18, 2022
Originally published Jan 05, 2018