Eustress: Meet The Positive Form Of Stress + How To Harness It

We tend to think of stress as a bad thing; after all, we are constantly in pursuit of ways to decrease stress.

However, there can be positive types of stress, called eustress, that can actually provide benefits to your mental health and potentially even physical health. 

So, what is eustress, and is it a good thing? What is the difference between good stress vs bad stress or positive stress vs negative stress?

In this guide to eustress, we will cover the basics like the eustress definition, how and why eustress is different from bad stress, and eustress examples in daily life.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Eustress?
  • Why Is Positive Stress Good?
  • How Is Eustress Different from Bad Stress?
  • What Are Examples of Eustress?

Let’s dive in! 

A nervous person biting a fingernail.

What Is Eustress?

The term “stress“ has a negative connotation in our society.

When we hear it, we immediately conjure up examples of challenging, difficult, or nerve-racking situations in our lives, such as struggling to pay bills, dealing with the deteriorating health of an elderly loved one, feeling strapped by a tight deadline at work, or fighting off a bad illness or injury.

However, not all stress is necessarily bad.

Eustress refers to good stress or positive stress rather than negative stress or a stressor in your life that is physically or mentally taxing to the point that it decreases your quality of life in the short term or long term.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the eustress definition, or how psychologists have come to define eustress, is as follows: Eustress is a “positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.”

Therefore, we can say that the eustress meaning is essentially the opposite of what we think of as stress normally in that it is positive stress rather than negative stress or can be considered “good stress” rather than “bad stress.”

The concept of eustress was created by an endocrinologist named Dr. Hans Selye, who discussed different concepts and constructs of stress and different types of stress in his book The Stress of Life, which he published back in 1956.

However, it took another 20 years or so for Dr. Hans Selye to really expound upon the characteristics of eustress and provide clarity on the differences between eustress vs distress or bad stress.

People in a cooking class.

Why Is Positive Stress Good?

The benefits of eustress are that this type of positive stress actually helps motivate us to make favorable changes in our lives, try new things, set goals, and broaden our horizons with new experiences or new connections.

For example, taking up a new hobby can be a basic example of eustress.

You might take a cooking class to learn how to prepare healthy meals when you have been relying solely on takeout or ready-made meals.

Trying to learn the various skills of cooking as an adult and perhaps testing out your limited experience by cooking your first meal for a loved one can be stressful.

However, this is acute stress and good stress that helps you expand your skill set, improve your health going forward, and take you outside of your comfort zone and normal routine to add richness to your life.

Eustress is good for us because it helps develop resilience, confidence, motivation to expand our abilities, develop a growth mindset, and an understanding that we can overcome challenging things.

A person with their head in their hands.

How Is Eustress Different from Bad Stress?

So, how is positive stress different from negative stress or distress? Is eustress still considered stress? What are the differences between examples of good stress vs bad stress?

Eustress is still categorized as stress.

Whether considering positive stress or negative stress, acute stress or chronic stress, physical stress or mental/emotional stress, etc., all forms of stress fall under the same classification of stress.

Stress is essentially our body’s reaction, perception, or interpretation of a threat, whether real or perceived.

Stress serves a vital survival role for the species.

For example, understanding our fragility as human beings caused our ancestors to experience stress when encountering lions or other predators, which would then initiate a physiological “stress response.“

A person stressed at work.

The body has innate mechanisms to handle stress or perceived threats that are primarily governed by the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system called the “flight-or-fight nervous system,” is activated in stressful events and situations.

While it is true that eustress is considered positive stress and can be beneficial for the body and mind, it is also important to establish that, in most cases, the body perceives any form of stress—whether good stress or bad stress—the same.

This means that the same fight or flight mechanisms will kick in when you are experiencing positive stress as are triggered when you are experiencing true negative stress.

Furthermore, what we perceive as stress in today’s modern society is not as dire or doesn’t impose as much of a threat to our survival stressors that early humans may have faced.

For example, you might feel stressed because you are running late to an important meeting, and while this meeting may have implications for your job stability and security, it likely isn’t as much of a threat to your survival as encountering a lion in the savanna when you were trying to secure a dinner for your family.

All of this is to say that most of us experience countless mini-episodes of stress in our daily lives, and the body does not know how to differentiate or titrate the extent of the stress response when it is mild stress vs major stress or good stress vs bad stress.

A person with their head in their hand, stressed.

We see this play out similarly with exercise.

Exercise is an example of eustress, as long as you are not overtraining.

Exercise provides a host of physical and mental health benefits that, together, improve our lives even if the workouts themselves are hard.

However, at the moment, when you are physically exerting yourself during a vigorous HIIT workout or run, the body perceives your exercise as a physical stressor.

As a result, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, and cortisol production is increased.

However, as long as you are recovering properly and not exceeding your body‘s ability to recover after a workout, exercise is an acute stress and an eustress example where the physiological stress response is quickly resolved when the workout is over.

Overtraining syndrome is an example of when positive stress can become negative stress.

A runner bent over, tired.

Here, insufficient recovery between workouts, even though working out in and of itself is an example of eustress, ends up turning your workout routine into negative stress.

Then, you enter a state where the sympathetic nervous system is always activated, and cortisol production is too high, leading to chronic increases in cortisol and a chronic stress situation.

Mental and emotional stress, whether distress or eustress, can have the same negative sequelae when acute stress becomes chronic stress.

If the recovery from the stressor is not resolved quickly, the body remains in a state of chronic stress.

Research has found that there are numerous health risks associated with chronic stress, including an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and compromised immune function.

Furthermore, chronic stress or extreme acute stress from negative stressors can increase anxiety, as we will develop fear or worry about future potential threats and triggers for stress based on our experience with bad stress.

For this reason, it is important to have mechanisms to cope with stress, particularly if the source of the stress is ongoing and you are dealing with negative vs positive stress.

A person smiling, working out at the gym.

What Are Examples of Eustress?

Although we have discussed eustress from a theoretical perspective, let’s look at some eustress examples so that you can find ways to incorporate positive stress into your life.

Here are some examples of good stress or eustress:

  • Traveling to a new country or new place that you have never been
  • Trying a new activity or sport
  • Working out consistently
  • Starting a dream job that you have been working towards
  • Starting school or a continuing education program that will be good for your future
  • Having a baby if you have always wanted a child
  • Moving in with a significant other
  • Living by yourself for the first time if you have always wanted to test your independence
  • Starting a new healthy diet or health behavior that seems a little intimidating but that you are excited about in terms of the future improvements in your health

To learn more about how to reduce stress when it is difficult stress or bad stress, check out our guide to diaphragmatic breathing here.

A person diaphragmatic breathing.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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