No one likes stress. It can feel like a weight dragging you down. Whether it's lots of little things at work or just one big thing at home, stress can lead to health problems like high blood pressure or a hard time focusing.
Stress needn't always be negative, however. Just like there's bad and good cholesterol, there's also bad stress — the type that can consume us — and good stress, also called eustress. Eustress isn't a new concept, and was actually introduced by the same endocrinologist who helped bring "stress" into the medical lexicon.
A brief history of stress
For the longest time, stress was a term primarily kept to the realm of physics. It was used to describe behavior when something resisted outside forces, like heat. This changed in the late 1930s with Hans Selye, known as the father of medical stress research. Selye first embraced the concept when he was in the second year of his medical residency at the University of Prague. He noticed patients often complained about certain symptoms — tiredness, wanting to lie down, etc. — regardless of their specific conditions. It was, in his words, "the syndrome of being sick."
Later, in 1935, Selye was conducting hormone studies in female rats. He noticed that, regardless of the injections he administered, the rats showed some of the same results: "enlargement of the adrenal glands, atrophy of the lymphatic system including the thymus and peptic ulcers of the stomach," according to an overview of Selye's work published in the Singapore Medical Journal. These results recurred in other situations, like exposure to cold roofs or being stuck on a treadmill.
Selye concluded the body was trying to resist changes, or to maintain homeostasis, just like stress in a physics context. (Selye was, apparently, unaware of the word's use in physics when he developed his definition.) Selye's concept of stress slowly caught on, and the word gained the negative connotation it still carries today. To differentiate stress as a response from the things that cause it, Selye also coined the word "stressor."
By the 1970s, Selye was still trying to combat the negative connotations of stress by introducing the concept of eustress and distress to better explain how he believed stress functions. Distress is stress we cannot handle. It leads to anxiety and negative health effects associated with stress. Eustress, on the other hand, is stress that the body deals with in a productive way.
Stress at its best
A second conception of eustress, developed by psychologist Richard Lazarus, focuses on the concept that our reaction to a stressor determines whether it has a negative effect on us. In this model of stress, eustress is a positive cognitive response to a stressor, particularly when it results in feelings of motivation or encouragement. It may be a little odd to think of stress as a positive thing, but it's not really a far-out concept. A certain amount of stress and/or a certain perspective on stress can spur us into action and help us perform better or enjoy things more.
Writing for U.S. News and World Report, clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael explains that chemical reactions to stress can help us, at least for a short time.
"Imagine the excited/nervous feeling you get right before you go on a roller coaster: sweaty palms, racing heart, butterflies in your stomach — these are your body's natural response to these stress hormones," Carmichael writes. "Our bodies get the same effect when we experience excitement of most any kind, even excitement over relatively happy events. Short term, these bursts of stress hormones can actually be beneficial in that they can increase brain function, improve concentration and boost feelings of alertness."
Think about how you feel before you start a new venture. Whether it's moving in with someone, starting a new job or even planning a vacation, there are some elements of stress. You're nervous about how well you'll live with this person or get along with new co-workers or if your itinerary is a little too ambitious. Looked at one way, these can be threats (distressors) to your overall well-being. But looked at another way, they are challenges (eustressors) that will drive you to be better.
Elizabeth Scott, a wellness coach, sees the difference as a way to help manage distress. "When we work on shifting our focus and approaching stress as a challenge whenever possible," she writes for Verywell Mind, "we can manage these challenges more easily and have more vital energy to handle these stressors, without a feeling of being overwhelmed or unhappy."
Of course, eustress is still a type of stress, and it takes a toll on your body. Think about how you might feel a bit run-down after a night of socializing or after completing a project at work. Your body still needs time to recover, even from the good things in life. "Most people are pretty good at nourishing themselves when they've had a rough day, but we also need to remember to recharge even after positive events," Carmichael says.
It's also important to remember that we all deal differently with stress, even good stress, and our limits are different, too. Some of us may thrive while meeting a lot of new people, but others may need some time to recover so the situation still falls within our comfort zone instead of exhausting us, or causing distress.
"This is why balance is vital to maintain," Scott says. "A balance between work activities and fun activities is important, but a balance of eustress and leisure is also an important focus. Changing one's perspective can certainly help with stress management, but it's not the only way to manage stress, and it's not the only strategy that should be used."