Later this month I will conduct “Reduce Stress for Success”, a workshop dealing with stress and managing it. Specifically, the workshop will focus on “bad stress” or distress. For now, though, I want to deal with another kind of stress. This stress doesn’t get talked about very much. Even when coaches or health care professionals are presenting information on stress, this kind of stress usually gets mentioned briefly and that’s the last mention made of it. This stress is actually “good stress” and is properly termed eustress.
Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, coined the term in 1936. He defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” In terms of stimulus and response, the demand for change from where we are normally (“equilibrium”) is the stimulus. Stress, good or bad, is the response. It’s important to remember that since life is not in stasis, change (and stress) are inevitable. In fact, more than one person has noted that the word best describing the complete absence of stress is death. While Selye focused on what would eventually become known as distress, it is this definition that leads to an understanding of good stress or eustress. It leaves unanswered, though, the question “how can stress be good?”
Eustress is the stress that gets us to do things. It gets you up in the morning to go to work or school. It is the stress that leads you to deal with excitement and challenges. When faced with a situation requiring extra effort or greater focus, it is eustress that provides that “energy boost” you need. Perhaps you’ve felt it when preparing to deliver a speech or go to a job interview. You may have experienced eustress when playing sports and trying very hard to win.
Eustress is the stress that keeps you going when part of you would really like to quit or give up. It provides the energy you need “when the going gets tough.” Changes in your life, whether social, academic, professional, physical or in any other area require some degree of stress if you are to deal with them successfully. When learning a new skill took extra time away from home and family, the thing that kept you going was eustress. When completing that extra training for your current job or career, or for a new one, took 2 years instead of the 6 months you had planned, it was eustress that helped you stick with the commitment you made initially. Whatever it is, if it was good for you and you approached it in a positive way, it was very likely eustress that played a role in achieving your goal. Feelings such are eagerness, pride, excitement, determined are related to eustress.
Often, the difference between eustress and distress is a matter of;
1. How you respond to the stimulus. In other words, do you feel worried or excited? Eager or threatened? Taking a moment to check how you feel can give you valuable clues as to the kind of stress you are experiencing.
2. The relative degree of control you feel you have over the situation. For instance, take the example of a person in the US military. She has just learned that next week her unit will be deploying to the desert for prolonged field training. If her view of living and training in the field (and everything associated with it) is a negative one she is likely to say “I have to go train, next week.” On the other hand, if she loves her military career and lives for field training and volunteered for it, she may well say “Next week I get to go train in the field.” Sometimes, even making such simple changes in how we talk and think about events can change the nature of our stress.
The next time you talk or think about your stress, take a moment to consider the kind you’re having. If it’s distress, there are some things to be done about it. You might want to seek the assistance of a coach or someone else. On the other hand, if it’s eustress, be glad it’s there. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and it’s a big part of what will help you succeed.