Eustress vs. Distress

“It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

We all experience stress in our everyday lives.  The manner in which stress affects us depends upon how we choose to think about stress, use stress, and respond to stress.  Stress is not always a “bad” thing.  Stress motivates us to changes our behaviors and move us closer to our chosen goals, dreams, and aspirations.  If we felt no stress, we would not be compelled to act in ways that bring about meaningful change.

There are two very different types of stress – eustress and distress – that we experience.  While one type of stress is positive (eustress) and another negative (distress), the ways in which they manifest themselves in our lives are largely within our control.  While we certainly cannot control many tragic events in life that will inevitably bring about painful distress (e.g., death of a loved one, personal tragedy) we have far more control than we realize over the way that we choose to respond to the natural, everyday stressors of life (e.g., running late, misplacing something, missing a deadline, an argument, etc.).


Some common characteristics of eustress are:

  • Improves performance
  • Short-term in nature
  • Motivates and focuses energy
  • Feels invigorating/energizing
  • Believed to be within our capabilities/something we can handle


Some common characteristics of distress are:

  • Demotivating and displaces energy
  • Causes anxiety, worry, or concern
  • Feels generally unpleasant/painful
  • Decreases overall performance/abilities
  • May lead to physical illness/mental fatigue/emotional depletion

How do you typically respond to stressful events in your life?  Do you allow yourself to sit with stress and use stressful energy constructively?  Do you feel overwhelmed by stress and turn towards a state of panic or physical/emotional withdrawal?

We all handle stress differently as the result of a lifetime of repeated experiences with stressful events.  We originally learn about “how” to respond to stress through the examples that we witnessed as children.  How do you recall your parents/caregivers typically responding to their own (or your) stress?  If we learned that stress is unbearable, painful, or otherwise “bad” then we usually carry this emotional and mental “baggage” with us into adulthood and see our own adult stress through this lens.

On the other hand, if we were fortunate enough in childhood to witness adults using stress constructively to bring about positive change and growth, then we have likely internalized healthy examples of how to handle stress.  If we had parents/caregivers who adequately and appropriately responded to stressful events without allowing emotions to get in the way of making positive change, then it may come more “naturally” as an adult to respond to stress in this way.

Remember the importance of reflecting back on your own childhood experience, recognizing the myriad of ways in which the examples that we witness as children affect our tendencies as adults.  Just because you had less than stellar examples of how to handle stress growing up, that does not mean that you cannot choose to act differently as an adult and be a different kind of example to your own children.

Change is constant and each stressful event in your daily life, from the little things to the big things, is an opportunity to practice new ways of responding.  How can you begin to change the way that you think about stress in your life?  If stress is natural and inevitable, why not choose to harness its motivating power to create positive change, rather than allow it create pain and drain your emotional resources?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Featured image: 365::225 – The Dark Half by bulliver / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on July 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    It strikes me that many people who struggle mightily with stress don’t stop to consider that it has the potential to have a positive impact on their lives. Perhaps if they did consider this, they would come up with creative ways to grow in the face of stress and consequently wouldn’t struggle with stress so mightily.

    Do you think the very idea of eustress could catalyze a breakthrough for individuals who have not considered it?

    • Laura on July 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      James – I think the concept of “eustress” is novel to many people. Choosing to view stress in this way can have an incredibly positive impact on one’s life. It seems that if one begins to reframe their stress as useful and motivating, that there would be much more growth and much less suffering. I absolutely think that the very idea of eustress could launch a breakthrough for those who have never considered it.

  2. Tanya Marie Clark on May 2, 2012 at 7:58 am

    A quick note to say fabulous article! Many people will benefit from this I believe!

    • Laura on May 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      Tanya – I’m glad you enjoyed this post on the the meaning and experience(s) of eustress vs. distress. Stress in life is entirely unavoidable, so it seems worthwhile for all of us to learn how to convert the uncomfortable and paralyzing experience of distress into a motivating and healthy form of eustress. In many ways, this involves changing one’s mindset toward what stress means and redirecting energy toward behaviors that replenish the self, reset one’s attitude, and increase motivation toward reaching goals… all of which end up reducing stress.

      Some people experience significant difficulties with managing emotional distress that may make the concept of eustress difficult to imagine in practice. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of emotion regulation and distress tolerance resources (based in Dialectical Behavior Therapy; DBT) that have demonstrated effectiveness in increasing individuals’ abilities to manage distress and intense emotions effectively. Thank you for your comment!

What's On Your Mind?