In 2018, more than 55 percent of Americans recalled feeling stress for much of the day. On the whole, we’ve been feeling more stressed than ever before, but not all stress is bad.
On a very basic level, the stress response alerting us to danger that we must avoid has saved the human race. It has helped us to fight and to flee in order to preserve ourselves, generation after generation.
Beyond that, stress offers us the opportunity for growth. Chinese lettering actually combines the characters for danger and opportunity to form the word stress. It is truly a paradoxical state, in which there is opportunity for growth that we should pursue, as well as a risk of danger that we must avoid.
So how do we recognize when our stress passes from opportunity to danger? It comes down to the difference between eustress and distress. Let’s take a look at these two different kinds of stress and how to identify which you are experiencing.
Eustress: Manageable and Constructive
Eustress, coined by Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1974, literally means “good stress,” with eu being the Greek prefix for “good.”
According to Selye, eustress is short-term and serves to energize and motivate us. The key defining trait of eustress is that it is perceived as within our ability to cope.
When we talk about stress, it is often from the viewpoint of eliminating it, but eustress can actually be very beneficial, as it increases focus and performance.
Eustress changes us on a biological level, signaling an increase in hormones that bring up heart rate and blood pressure, plunging the brain into a state of hyper-awareness encased with emotional calm and physical relaxation. This hyper-awareness helps us to face and overcome challenges, leading us to grow and become more confident in our abilities.
Eustress might be experienced when starting a new romantic relationship, getting married, starting a new job, buying a home, traveling, going on holiday, having a child, or exercising.
Any of those environments could also be distressing, based on personality and circumstance, because any degree of meaningful change brings with it an element of stress. Something that is eustress for one person could very well be distress for another. It’s all about your personal perception of how well you can cope in that particular situation.
Distress: Overwhelming and Dangerous
The negative kind of stress is distress, defined in a 2003 study by LeFevre, Matheny, and Kolt as “a state of ill-being in which happiness and comfort have been surrendered.”
As Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye explains it, distress is differentiated from eustress in that it is perceived as surpassing our ability to cope. Instead of energizing and motivating us, distress can trigger anxiety, concern, and unpleasant feelings, decreasing focus and performance. Distress is often due to long-term stressors we cannot control, but it can also be short-term.
Distress is what happens when stress passes from opportunity to danger. Distress poses a health risk—a physical knock to the body that comes as a consequence of prolonged anxieties. Distress can cause insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure, mental disorders, and more.
I witnessed the negative health effects of distress with my father when, the night before a big court case in which he was on trial, he experienced a significant heart attack. The distress of what was coming triggered a physical response that nearly killed him.
Any number of situations can lead to distress—chronic medical conditions, high-pressure work environments, physical or emotional trauma, and so on. Anytime you feel overwhelmed by your stress, unable to see a path forward to a brighter future, you are likely suffering from distress.
Managing Your Stress
Stress is simply the byproduct of trying to control something that we, in fact, have no control over. With this in mind, the goal isn’t to eliminate stress, but to manage it. Just by trying to eliminate it, we’re attempting to control what we cannot, thereby creating more stress. It’s an avoidance of reality that seems to plague our culture.
Eustress tends to be easy to manage. Because we feel capable of coping with it, we can create plans of action to carry us through and beyond the stress. It’s important to manage eustress and not try to eliminate it, or it could very well transform into distress.
When faced with overwhelming distress, all we can do is take one moment at a time and control those things we can. If we try to project ourselves out into a future where all we can see is pain, it becomes too much to bear. But by managing what we can in each moment—and nothing more than that—we can keep moving forward, however slowly.
Surrender to that which you cannot control, manage what you can, and trust in your own strength.
For more advice on managing stress, you can find The Empowerment Paradox on Amazon.
Ben Woodward’s repeated personal experience with family trauma, chronic illness, and corporate crisis have taught and tutored him with intimate insight. The gained wisdom from such lessons have seen him thrive as a senior executive in multibillion-dollar companies, becoming the global president of a multinational corporation. He has served on the board of directors for trade associations, traveled to thirty countries as a keynote speaker, business leader, and entrepreneur, and most importantly, enjoys a wonderful home life with his wife Kim and seven beautiful children.
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