Eustress vs. distress: What are the differences?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress is a natural human response to frightening, threatening, or confusing events and situations. Stress sometimes keeps individuals safe by motivating them to fight, run away, or freeze to safeguard themselves. It can also encourage people to utilize motivation. 

Eustress and distress are two types of stress that can impact your overall health and daily functioning. Recognizing which is healthy and which may be harmful can help you take steps toward positive stress and away from maladaptive stress.

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Are you experiencing eustress or distress in your life?

Eustress vs. distress

Eustress and distress are forms of stress unique from one another. Eustress is a term for positive stress that can have a beneficial impact on your life. "Eu" is a prefix meaning "good" used in words like "euphoria" or "eulogy." Eustress can refer to challenges that put positive or healthy pressure on you to grow and improve. Contrarily, distress is an unhealthy or "bad" form of stress. Distress is what you may think about when you think of stress, which can harm your well-being.

Eustress works similarly throughout the body to other types of stress. It heightens the central nervous system, making you more alert. It often occurs in response to a specific situation or task that is challenging but ultimately achievable. While distress may linger, eustress can temporarily boost motivation, achievement, and resilience.

What is distress? 

Distress is a maladaptive form of stress. While sometimes unavoidable, experiencing distress can harm mental wellness. While a minor amount of negative stress can have a similar effect to eustress, a prolonged experience can have unwanted side effects. With pervasive stress, whether from a job or other sources, distress can significantly impact your health and well-being.

Distress is often characterized by how it surpasses one's ability to cope with challenging circumstances. Looming feelings of anxiety can significantly contribute to this type of stress. While eustress allows individuals to tackle challenges positively, distress can cause an adverse stress response in the face of significant obstacles. Distress can also develop in the wake of events outside of your control, such as the death of a loved one, the end of a romantic relationship, or unexpected failure.  

While some people use the term "stress" to refer exclusively to distress, it is an umbrella term that can refer to any type of stress, including eustress. Although distress may be more commonly discussed due to its adverse effects on mental health, it can be as vital to highlight the positive sides of stress to build confidence and accomplish goals.

How does eustress benefit individuals? 

Eustress can have a wealth of benefits regarding personal achievement and mental health. For example, it may give individuals a temporary energy boost to complete tense but ultimately exciting and positive activities—like starting a new job. If you've ever felt stressed but optimistic when making a significant life change, you may have experienced eustress. Eustress allows people to cope with the challenges of new situations without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Eustress is often a result of pushing yourself past where you are comfortable growing and changing. Whether you're looking for a challenge in terms of physical, personal, or professional goals, it can increase your self-confidence while you reach new milestones. 

Eustress can also significantly increase feelings of self-efficacy, which refer to a person's belief in their ability to achieve specific outcomes according to their actions. It can make people feel more prepared to face particular challenges, whether significant or minor. Without stress present, psychologists theorize that people might feel bored and unfulfilled. Eustress could be characterized as a happy medium involving energy without pushing one past their limits. 

If you're bored and stagnant, you might benefit from challenging, positive activities that engage and inspire you. Try picking up a new hobby or taking steps toward a goal, whether you're interested in a new sport, a creative discipline, or carving out time to explore new places with friends and family. The excitement of new, foreign experiences can cause eustress and positive emotions. 

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How does distress impact the body and mind? 

While eustress can positively affect the mind and body, distress can have the opposite effect. It can be essential to look out for symptoms of stress and distress to enact change and seek support if necessary. 

Fatigue and lethargy 

Fatigue and lethargy are some of the most common symptoms of distress. If you struggle to get out of bed in the morning and feel weighed down throughout the day, you could be experiencing the adverse effects of distress. Fatigue may make it more difficult to accomplish basic tasks, which can seem overwhelming. 

Anger or irritability 

If you've ever snapped at someone in a stressful moment, you may be familiar with how anger can become a secondary response to stress. It might be a sign of distress if you often feel angry and irritable. You may even feel your blood pressure rising in response to the stress. When experiencing excess distress, it can seem that more sets you off. 

Changes in sleep patterns 

Changes in your sleeping patterns may be another sign of distress. Insomnia or hypersomnia can both be caused by changes in mental well-being. Poor sleep quality can often exacerbate stress, causing further distressing symptoms. 

Feelings Of Guilt Or Hopelessness 

When you're experiencing prolonged distress, it can be normal to feel guilty or hopeless. As you face stressful situations you have little to no control over, you may feel guilty about your actions or powerless to enact meaningful change. 

How to cope with stress

If you're experiencing the adverse effects of stress, there are several steps you can take to cope. Whether you implement lifestyle changes, adopt healthier habits, visit a therapist, or consider medical treatments, reducing the amount of distress you're experiencing over time is possible. 

Consult a medical provider before deciding to start or stop a new medication. No matter what methods you use for stress management, receiving professional advice can be a safe way to ensure you meet your goals and exhaust every avenue of support. Even when stress is unavoidable, there may be ways to reduce the impact it has on your mental and physical health. 

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Are you experiencing eustress or distress in your life?

Professional support options 

If you've been struggling to cope with distress on your own, you might choose to consider counseling. Therapy can be a productive way to express your thoughts and feelings, get a second opinion, and develop strategies to cope with stress or anxiety in your daily life.

However, some people face barriers to mental healthcare, such as a lack of transportation, financial hardship, or limited availability of nearby professionals. Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can reduce some of these barriers and reduce stressors like a long commute or searching for parking. 

Researchers studied the mental health of university students before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and assessed the effectiveness of online versus face-to-face psychodynamic counseling intervention for stress. They found that online counseling intervention during the pandemic was effective in reducing psychological distress. In addition, it decreased symptoms of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), interpersonal sensitivity, and anxiety. 

Takeaway

Stress is a natural part of being human that can have positive and negative purposes. It may offer motivation and keep you safe while being a byproduct of anxiety or pressure from others. Recognizing the type of stress you're experiencing can help you identify the value of making lifestyle changes, starting a new stress management technique, or reaching out to a mental health professional. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to further understand the impacts of stress on the mind and body and receive compassionate guidance.

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