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Is All Stress Bad for You, or Can Some of It Be Good?

mental health stress May 06, 2024
Is All Stress Bad for You, or Can Some of It Be Good?

Stress plays a massive role in our lives, particularly with all of the pressures that the modern day can bring. Being stuck in a traffic jam can be stressful. Reading bad news can be stressful. Having a large to-do list can be stressful. But stress often gets a bad rap: we tend to use the word stress to primarily describe bad events in our lives, rather than any good ones. But did you know that sometimes, a bit of stress can actually be good for us? 

Although bad stress (distress) is the more commonly-known type, psychologists suggest that there is also good stress (eustress) that can not only benefit our health and well-being, but also help improve our overall performance. Read on to discover the differences between distress and eustress, how you can transform bad stress into good stress, and how you can use stress to your advantage by changing your stress mindset. 

Discover practical ways to reduce your daily stress in the How to Manage Everyday Stress Short Course.

What Is Distress? 

Simply put, distress is the bad kind of stress. This is the stress that makes you feel overwhelmed, burnt out, or emotionally drained. This stress occurs when our resources, such as social support or self-confidence, are not enough for us to meet our demands. We can experience distress when we are vigilant about a threat. And just as we can experience distress from life’s challenges – for instance, coping with a break-up, grieving the loss of a pet, or dealing with financial problems, we can also feel it from an imagined threat, including unrealistic rumination, self-doubt, and negative bias.  

High or prolonged amounts of distress can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Along with this emotional impact, it can also harm our physical state. For example, it can damage the body’s immune system by lowering the number of white blood cells – the disease fighters. This stress can also increase heart rate and blood pressure, making us more vulnerable to illnesses. 

What Is Eustress? 

Eustress is the good stress. It can help to create positive emotions, improve our physical state, and occur when we view a challenge as an opportunity for growth. We tend to feel eustress when we are confident about overcoming a challenge. Typically, we can feel eustress from smaller activities such as learning to drive, to bigger life transitions like becoming a parent. Generally speaking, events that you consider to be fun, new, and exciting can bring you eustress. 

Eustress can empower us in many ways, from giving us a sense of purpose to making us feel fulfilled. This type of stress can benefit our well-being because the psychological benefits it offers can put us in a more positive mood. Eustress can not only improve our well-being, but it can also motivate and energize us. And because of its positive influences, this stress can help improve our performance. 

What Is Your Stress Mindset? 

Although whether we get eustress or distress seems to mainly rely on the event itself, researchers suggested that how we interpret our stress plays a more important role in determining which stress type we will feel. In other words, the human mind – and the relationship we have with our own – can be a powerful tool in how we perceive or react to different events, and the potential stressors that can come with them. The way we think can influence our reality – just like how thinking positively can boost our happy hormones and make us feel happier. How we view stress – be it valuable or catastrophizing – can turn it into either our friend or enemy. 

Dr. Kelly McGonigal – a health psychologist and a professor at Stanford University – discussed these “stress mindsets” in her book: The Upside of Stress. She proposed that our mindsets can not only affect how we experience stress, but that they can also influence how we approach challenges. There are two stress mindsets: 

  • The Stress-Is-Harmful Mindset: People with this mindset tend to feel more distress. They believe that stress can harm their health, performance, and productivity. And because of their negative view, these people are more likely to avoid stress in general. 
  • The Stress-Is-Enhancing Mindset: People who hold this mindset can experience more eustress. They view stress as a normal response to challenges and see it as an essential part of life. Rather than avoiding stress completely, these people tend to try to use it as a tool. 

Unlock the Power of Stress Mindsets  

Our stress mindsets influence whether we experience more good or bad stress. Dr. McGonigol explained that this is because those who embrace stress – the stress-is-enhancing people – are not afraid of it. With this courage, these people tend to be more likely to address the source of stress and accept its existence. And in doing so, they tend to be more resilient and persevering when faced with adversities. 

Yet, those who avoid stress – the stress-is-harmful people –  tend to find ways to escape the source of stress. This avoidance, Dr. McGonigol suggested, is because they believe that stress is dangerous. And for this reason, these people are more likely to evacuate from the root causes or even shift their attention away from their problems.  

Simply put, those with a positive mindset tend to experience good stress; those with a negative mindset are more likely to feel the bad type. So, is there a way to turn the bad stress into the good type – and if so, then how?? 

Let’s Transform Distress Into Eustress 

To feel eustress, we must adopt the stress-is-enhancing mindset. But if you hold the stress-is-harmful mindset, you’re not alone. In fact, many of us do so. We are often told that we should manage our stress – the booming wellness industry supports this ideal – and that isn’t wrong. It is important to manage it, and to be able to recognize the difference between good and bad stress. However, we don’t necessarily have to avoid stress completely, nor do we always have to tame it. 

Dr. Alia Crum – an American psychologist who specializes in mindset-shifting – designed a three-step method for reframing our stress mindset. She claims that we can transform our feelings of stress into a source of motivation – and that we can use stress to our advantage, to help us achieve our goals, by following these steps: 


  • Step 1. Acknowledge the stress: If you feel stressed, take a moment and validate its presence. Notice how it affects your skin, body temperature, heartbeat, and skin. Don’t deny its existence. Instead, recognize stress as a natural part of life without judgment. 
  • Step 2. Welcome the stress: What makes you feel stressed? Perhaps you don’t want to screw up an upcoming exam, or maybe you’re worried about not getting that promotion at work. Accept the stress and reflect upon its causes. Although stress might give you unpleasant feelings, it can also signify that you care about those events. Your stress and nerves around these events might also tell you that you are responsible and hard-working. Focus on the positive aspects of this stress and welcome that into your life. 
  • Step 3. Transform the stress: While most people tend to minimize their stress, we can use it to our advantage. Instead of wasting energy trying to control inevitable stress, we can turn our distress into eustress by focusing on its benefits. Reflect upon your goals and values. Flip your mindset, and think about how your stress can help you – for instance, how it can give you the motivation to achieve your goals. And as you change your limiting thoughts into empowering beliefs, you can turn your distress into eustress. 

All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Eustress and Distress: Neither Good Nor Bad, but Rather the Same?; The Effect of Pre-transplant Distress on Immune Reconstitution Among Adult Autologous Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation Patients; Stress and Your Heart; Eustress and Distress Climates in Teams: Patterns and Outcomes; The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It; Eustress: The Good Stress; About - Kelly McGonigal; Alia Crum | Department of Psychology

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