Eustress and distress are terms that refer to different types of stress. According to the leading theory, eustress feels challenging but manageable, and it ultimately leads to growth. In contrast, distress is more difficult and can sometimes feel unmanageable.

Not all experts agree with the concepts of eustress and distress. For example, a 2020 paper argues that these labels imply that some forms of stress are “good” while others are “bad.” However, whether stress has a positive or negative effect on a person depends on a wide variety of factors.

An event that one person experiences as stressful but ultimately rewarding might be profoundly upsetting to another person. A 2021 study found that a key factor in this is whether the person has the right resources to manage the challenge.

Read on to learn more about eustress versus distress, including their differences, the signs of both, and their impact.

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Eustress and distress are terms that categorize different types of stress. At one end of the spectrum is distress, which involves negative feelings and is often a difficult experience. At the other end is eustress, which is challenging but rewarding.

People can experience eustress when they feel confident in their ability to solve a problem or cope with a situation. For example, they may feel stressed about an exam but know that they have prepared enough to be able to do it. Afterward, they might feel a sense of accomplishment or pride.

In comparison, distress can occur when a person feels unable to cope or out of their depth. For example, if a person has not studied for a forthcoming exam, they may feel anxious or panicked.

However, distress is not inherently damaging. In some cases, people who initially feel distressed in a situation may become motivated to address a problem, leading to better outcomes in the future. Their experience of the stress may also change over time.

Using the example above, a person who is not prepared for an exam might create a study plan so that they can perform better next time. Alternatively, they might feel distressed before the exam but then realize that they are more capable than they had believed. In this case, their feelings might change from distress to eustress.

Distress can also occur in situations that are beneficial. For example, a person may feel distress when they break up with a partner, even though they know that doing so is what is best for them.

Some examples of experiences that may trigger eustress include:

  • exercise that matches a person’s ability and fitness level
  • travel that is stressful but ultimately rewarding
  • work that is challenging but fulfilling
  • major life changes that a person desires, such as moving house or getting married

Some examples of experiences that may trigger distress include:

  • bullying
  • controlling or manipulative behavior
  • a relationship ending against a person’s wishes
  • the death of a loved one

Whether people experience eustress or distress depends on their unique perspective and circumstances.

Some signs of eustress and distress include:

EustressDistress
Durationoften short-term, with a clear solution or a way out of the situationcan be short-term or long-term
Difficultymore likely to feel challenging but manageablemore likely to feel unmanageable or overwhelming
Emotionsmay include frustration or worry, but also fulfillment or happinessmore likely to include anxiety, panic, or hopelessness
Self-efficacyusually occurs in situations where a person feels confident, or self-efficacy is highoften occurs in situations where a person’s perceived self-efficacy is low
Physical well-beingless likely to affect physical health, although occasional eustress may actually improve itmore likely to affect physical health, especially if the distress is chronic

A person’s experience of stress is subjective, and there is no right or wrong way to feel. Many factors can influence how a person responds to a challenging situation.

According to some psychologists, a significant factor is the resources to which a person has access. These resources could be physical objects, such as:

  • money
  • transport
  • a stable home

They could also be nonphysical resources, such as:

  • time
  • knowledge
  • energy
  • health
  • steady employment
  • healthy coping skills
  • social support

The conservation of resources (COR) theory predicts that those with more resources will cope more effectively with adversity. A 2021 study put this to the test by examining how 839 people responded to COVID-19 lockdowns in Spain.

Although many people reported some distress during this time, the researchers found that those with more personal resources experienced more eustress, particularly those who reported having “vitality.” This term refers to a sense of good mental and physical well-being.

Distress was associated with a lack of resources, particularly with regard to employment, job satisfaction, and the home environment. Those with a lack of space were more likely to experience distress.

Stress is not necessarily always negative. Although stress of any type does take a toll on the body over time, it can be beneficial in the short term.

Stress occurs due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which leads to the fight-or-flight response. The sympathetic nervous system helps people respond to things that scare them by:

  • sending blood to the muscles
  • increasing breathing rate and heart rate
  • releasing glucose into the bloodstream, which provides energy

In some situations, these physiological changes can give people an advantage. For example, an athlete with a manageable amount of stress may gain physical benefits from the extra energy and oxygen, ultimately aiding their performance.

However, any type of stress can become harmful when the sympathetic nervous system is often or always “switched on.”

This may happen due to chronic stress, where a person feels stressed frequently over an extended period. It can also happen due to certain conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Chronic or traumatic stress can trigger oxidative stress, which is when free radicals damage cell DNA. This damage can cause tissue degeneration, raise the likelihood of disease, and accelerate aging.

In the short term, though, moderate levels of stress may cause “oxidative eustress,” which is when a low level of free radicals challenge the body, causing it to become more efficient.

Exercise, for example, can induce eustress that improves health by challenging and strengthening the heart and lungs. It may also reduce the risk of certain mental health conditions and even help a person live longer.

Stress may be harmful if it becomes unmanageable, lasts for weeks or months, or is due to a problem for which a person can find no solution.

People can promote eustress in several ways. A simple way to do this is to participate in activities that are challenging but feel doable and have a clear route forward. A person could try:

  • learning a new skill
  • starting a new hobby or project
  • playing games
  • doing puzzles
  • mentoring or teaching others
  • exercising at a level suited to their physical abilities
  • doing volunteer work

For challenges that a person has not sought out, promoting eustress may involve one of two strategies: making the challenge easier or increasing resources. Both make the problem more manageable.

For example, an organization might reduce high levels of distress among employees by reducing workloads or adjusting goals.

Alternatively, they might give people more resources by hiring extra help, providing training, or reducing meetings to give people more time.

Strategies to promote eustress over distress can help on an individual and societal level. As a result, they are important for public health.

Chronic or overwhelming stress is not something that a person has to tolerate. In fact, doing so can be detrimental to health and well-being.

If a person is finding it difficult to manage high amounts of stress or anxiety, they can seek help from a:

  • doctor
  • therapist or counselor
  • support organization or helpline
  • human resources department, if the stress is work-related

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.

Click here for more links and local resources.

Any type of stress can feel unpleasant in the moment. However, not all types are harmful. In fact, eustress may come with rewarding feelings that encourage personal growth in the long term. It is possible that eustress may have a beneficial effect on physical health, too.

However, distress stems from intense, challenging stress that a person feels unable to manage. Turning distress into eustress may help expand a person’s coping resources and foster resilience.

If possible, people experiencing chronic or unmanageable stress should seek support.