Eustress vs. Distress: When Is Stress Good for You?

By Danielle Boland

We all experience stress in our daily lives. Stress can happen due to work, school, family life and relationships. It can be an occasional experience that helps us in our day-to-day lives, or it can become a chronic issue that greatly impacts everyday functioning. 

It’s important to be able to tell the difference between good and bad stress. It’s perhaps equally important to know where to turn when stress begins negatively affecting your life.

What Is Stress?

Stress is a mental and physical response to an external situation. It can be caused by anything, such as school, work, a date, running late or anticipating an upcoming event. Experiencing stress is very normal, and most people feel stressed out from time to time. Stress is normally short-lived and can even help motivate someone to take action in some situations. 

There are two types of stress: good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Knowing the difference between the two can help you figure out if your stress is helping you or hurting you. 

What Is Eustress (Good Stress)?

Eustress is a positive form of stress that is beneficial to someone’s health, performance, emotional well-being or motivation. Eustress is also known as good stress, and it is often experienced when there is an exciting yet potentially stressful situation that occurs in life. 

Causes of Eustress

Eustress is normally brought on by something that challenges us in a good way. It can occur when someone is excited about something, such as an interview for a promotion or a performance in front of others. Eustress is related to fun challenges that you are excited about, and it has an overall positive effect on mental health. 

Signs of Eustress

How do you know if you are experiencing eustress and not distress? Factors such as the duration, level of difficulty, emotional response and physical response all play a part in distinguishing good stress from bad stress.

Eustress is normally short-lived and has a clear ending or solution in sight. It can be brought on by a challenging but fun situation; it can cause some worry, but it usually leads to happiness and fulfillment when the situation is over. Eustress can lead to improved confidence and physical health, depending on the situation.

Examples of Eustress 

Eustress can be brought on by many different scenarios. Some of these include:

  • Exercise that challenges you
  • Planning a big vacation
  • Interviewing for an exciting new job
  • A big life change, such as marriage or moving
  • Starting a new relationship

The Impact of Eustress

Eustress has been linked to feelings of vitality and overall wellness. Short bursts of stress cause the nervous system to increase breathing and heart rate and send an increase of blood to muscles. These bursts also release glucose in the bloodstream, which causes a surge in energy. Completing tasks that are challenging but manageable can cause an increase in self-esteem and feelings of overall happiness. 

What Is Distress (Bad Stress)?

Distress is when someone feels extreme worry, sadness or pain due to an external situation. Distress often occurs when someone feels they are overwhelmed or unable to handle the negative stress of a situation. Distress can cause negative feelings and emotions, and it has potential health risks as well.

Causes of Distress

Distress can arise when someone feels they are not capable of handling the emotional load of a situation. Someone who has low-self esteem or a lack of support may be more prone to feeling distress instead of eustress in certain situations. Distress is also more likely to occur when a stressful situation is chronic and there does not seem to be an end or solution. 

Signs of Distress

Distress can present itself differently depending on the person who is experiencing it. Distress can be due to a short-term or long-term situation. It will feel overwhelming or hopeless, like there is no easy solution to make the problem go away. Distress can cause feelings of anxiety, sadness and panic. It can also have a negative effect on physical and mental health.  

Examples of Distress

Distress can be caused by many different scenarios. Some examples include:

  • A bad relationship
  • Stressful job
  • Bullying
  • Financial troubles
  • Death of a loved one

The Impact of Distress

Distress can cause the sympathetic nervous system to be constantly engaged, which can lead to burnout. Chronic stress can also cause oxidative stress, which is when free radicals cause damage to someone’s DNA. This kind of damage can cause muscle and tissue damage, increase the likelihood of disease and increase the rate of aging.  

When Does Good Stress Turn Bad?

Some stress is good for us, but even good stress can sometimes turn into something more negative. Eustress can cause feelings of excitement and accomplishment, but it can also become overwhelming if the stressful situation does not resolve or if it causes someone to continuously push themselves to an unhealthy place.

How To Turn Bad Stress Into a Good Thing

When you are experiencing stress, the determining factor in whether it will be good stress or bad stress is how you react to and handle it. Taking a bad situation and using it as motivation for change, for example, is one way to turn bad stress into a good thing. 

Ways To Cope With Stress

We all experience good stress and bad stress, so it’s important to know how to handle these situations in healthy ways. Regardless of what you are going through, there are many different coping mechanisms for managing stress. These include:

  • Exercising
  • Taking breaks
  • Talking to friends or family
  • Getting enough rest
  • Knowing when to slow down
  • Practicing mindfulness

These types of skills can help you manage good and bad stress by turning your focus to something outside of the stressful situation. Physical activity and emotional support can also help you keep your stress manageable. 

When To Seek Help for Stress

Although we all experience stressful situations, it can sometimes become overwhelming when you try to manage it all on your own. If you feel like you have chronic stress or that it is hurting your mental or physical health, it could be time to get additional support. 

The Nobu app is an easy-to-use tool that can help you manage your stress. With features such as journaling prompts, mindfulness practices and mental health lessons, the Nobu app can help you learn new ways to manage stress. For an additional fee, the Nobu app can also connect you with a licensed therapist for professional mental health treatment. Sign up for Nobu and download the app today, available for free on Apple and Android devices.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.

Written by – Danielle Boland

Danielle is a licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Danielle graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a Masters of Social Work, and always had the goal of opening her own private practice. She specializes in women’s issues, maternal health and postpartum mental health. Danielle is passionate about empowering people of all ages and hopes to use her writing skills to provide more resources for those looking to improve their mental health… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.