Eustress vs. Distress vs. Stress: How to Know the Difference

By: Margaret Wack

Updated August 28, 2020

What is Eustress?

Eustress is a term for positive stress that can have a beneficial impact on your life. "Eu" is a prefix meaning good or well, also used in words like "euphoria" and "eulogy." Eustress can refer to challenges in work and life that put pressure on us to grow and improve. These positive sources of stress can motivate you to work hard to achieve a goal, complete a task, or reach beyond your comfort zone.


Eustress works in a similar way throughout the body as other types of stress. It heightens the central nervous system, making us more alert and aware. One of the key factors in eustress is that it usually occurs in response to a specific situation or task at hand that is challenging but ultimately achievable. While other kinds of stress may linger, eustress gives us a temporary boost that helps us to achieve things we set our minds to.

What is Distress?

Distress is the negative version of stress, what most people refer to when they talk about stress at all. Distress, while sometimes unavoidable, usually isn't a good thing in terms of mental wellness. While a small amount of distress can have a similar effect to that of eustress, prolonged distress can have plenty of unwanted side effects. Especially when it comes to pervasive stress, whether from a job or other sources, ongoing stress can have a significant negative impact on your health and wellbeing.

Distress is generally characterized by the way in which it surpasses our ability to cope with stressful circumstances. Looming feelings of stress and anxiety about things that we have no control over are a significant contributing factor to distress. While eustress allows us to tackle challenges in a positive way, distress highlights the ways in which we are powerless in the face of huge obstacles. Distress also happens in the wake of common events outside of our control, such as the death of a loved one, the failure of a romantic relationship, or personal or professional failure.


What is Stress?

While most people use the term stress to refer exclusively to distress, stress is an umbrella term that can refer to any type of stress, whether good or bad. Although distress tends to be more commonly talked about due to its negative effects on mental health, eustress can be just as important, as it helps us to build confidence and accomplish goals.

Benefits of Eustress

Eustress can have a wealth of benefits in terms of personal achievement and mental health. Eustress gives us the temporary boost we need in order to complete stressful but ultimately exciting and positive activities. If you've ever been stressed but optimistic when you're starting a family, beginning a new job, or organizing another big life change, you've experienced eustress. Eustress allows us to cope with the challenges of new situations without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Eustress can also significantly increase our feelings of self-efficacy, which refers to a person's belief in their ability to achieve different outcomes according to their actions. It can make us more prepared to face the challenges that come our way, both big and small. Without any stress present, psychologists theorize that people would be bored and unfulfilled. Eustress is the happy medium in terms of stress, energizing and invigorating without pushing us past our limits.

How to Incorporate Eustress into Your Life

Looking for a little positive stress in your life? Eustress not only has a positive function in our lives, but also helps prepare us for more negative kinds of stress.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Eustress is often a result of pushing yourself past the place where you are comfortable in order to grow and change. Whether you're looking for a challenge in terms of the physical, personal, or professional, it's always a good idea to reach for your goals. The beneficial effects of eustress can help you accomplish new things and progress in many different areas in your life.

Try New Things


If you're feeling bored and stagnant, you might need a little eustress in your life in the form of new, challenging activities that engage and inspire you. Try picking up a new hobby or activity, whether that means a pick-up sport, a creative discipline, or even just a little time carved out to explore new places with friends and family. The excitement of new, foreign experiences will trigger eustress, along with a wealth of positive benefits.

Set Goals

Eustress functions properly when it helps you to achieve your goals. It's a good idea to set goals that are slightly out of your reach, and that require effort to work towards. While these goals should still be within the realm of reason, it's important to push yourself toward bigger and better things in order to keep yourself active and engaged.

Look Toward the Future

Dream big! Eustress is at its best when you're hopeful and optimistic about the future. Whether you're dreaming of starting a family, rising in the ranks at work, or even just achieving a new personal best at the gym, looking at the future in a positive light can help you to reap the benefits of eustress and achieve your goals.

Negative Effects of Distress and Stress

While eustress can have a positive effect on both the mind and the body, distress can have the opposite effect. It's important to watch out for symptoms of stress and distress so that you can enact change or seek help if necessary.

Fatigue and Lethargy

Fatigue and lethargy are some of the most common symptoms of stress. If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning, and feel like you're weighed down throughout the day, you could be suffering from the adverse effects of stress. Fatigue makes it more difficult to accomplish basic tasks, which can seem overwhelming and impossible.

Anger and Irritability

If you've ever snapped at someone in a stressful moment, you're familiar with the way that anger can creep into stress and anxiety. If you often feel angry or irritable, it might be a sign of distress. When suffering from excess stress, it can feel as if you're on a much shorter fuse, and even little things can set you off.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Change in sleep patterns is another common sign of stress. You might have trouble falling asleep at night, tossing and turning, and could even suffer from insomnia. Conversely, you might be tired all the time, and sleep much more often than is typical, often at odd hours of the day. Poor quality sleep can often exacerbate existing stress, making this an especially challenging symptom.

Feelings of Guilt or Hopelessness

When you're suffering from prolonged stress and distress, it's common to feel guilty and hopeless. Because you're faced with stressful situations that you have little to no control over, you can feel guilt over your actions, and powerless to enact meaningful change. Guilt and hopeless are common side effects of extreme stress.

Hope to Cope with Stress

Are you suffering from the negative effects of stress and distress? The good news is that stress is incredibly common, and there are a variety of tried and true techniques for mitigating the effects of stress.


Exercise has been shown to have a powerful effect against stress. Exercise releases a wealth of feel-good hormones into the body, promoting relaxation and positive feelings. In addition, exercise can help distract you from negative or obsessive thoughts. Exercise also tires the body in a positive way, making it easier for you to fall asleep at night.


Lifestyle Changes

There are a variety of small changes you can make in your life to help fight stress and anxiety. In addition to exercise, it's also important to eat healthy, balanced meals, and to steer clear of drugs and alcohol that could further exacerbate your symptoms. If you're feeling stressed out and still craving stimulation, try sipping on a cup of tea to ward off anxiety and promote calm and focus.

It's also important to identify the stressors in your life, and to try to reduce them to the best of your ability. While not all stress can be avoided, sometimes it's a good idea to take a careful look at your life in order to weed out stressful situations and activities. Maybe you're stressed out by a particular person, and can make plans to avoid them, or maybe you have a stressful occupation, and could consider switching jobs. Even when stress is an unavoidable part of life, you can still try to avoid unnecessary stress if possible.

Seek Help

If you're suffering from the adverse effects of stress, distress, and anxiety, it's always a good idea to seek out the help of a professional. Doctors and psychiatrists can prescribe medicine to help treat stress and anxiety. Even if you only experience stress during certain circumstances, like flying on a plane, they can work with you to find a solution that helps you manage your mental health.

Doctors and therapists can also provide invaluable support through their therapy services. Therapy can be a great way to express your thoughts and feelings, get a second opinion, and come up with strategies to cope with stress and anxiety in your daily life. BetterHelp offers a diverse selection of online therapy services to help you manage your mental health. Interested in learning more? Get in touch with us today!


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