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Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress)

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 12th 2016

We mentioned it earlier and it bears repeating: stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is simply the body's response to changes that create taxing demands. The previously mentioned Dr. Lazarus (building on Dr. Selye's work) suggested that there is a difference between eustress, which is a term for positive stress, and distress, which refers to negative stress. In daily life, we often use the term "stress" to describe negative situations. This leads many people to believe that all stress is bad for you, which is not true. Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics: 

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance

In contrast, Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems

It is somewhat hard to categorize stressors into objective lists of those that cause eustress and those that cause distress, because different people will have different reactions to particular situations. However, by generalizing, we can compile a list of stressors that are typically experienced as negative or positive to most people, most of the time.

Examples of negative personal stressors include:

  • The death of a spouse
  • Filing for divorce
  • Losing contact with loved ones
  • The death of a family member
  • Hospitalization (oneself or a family member)
  • Injury or illness (oneself or a family member)
  • Being abused or neglected
  • Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Bankruptcy/Money Problems
  • Unemployment
  • Sleep problems
  • Children's problems at school
  • Legal problems

Examples of positive personal stressors include:

  • Receiving a promotion or raise at work
  • Starting a new job
  • Marriage
  • Buying a home
  • Having a child
  • Moving
  • Taking a vacation
  • Holiday seasons
  • Retiring
  • Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby

Work and employment concerns such as those listed below are also frequent causes of distress:

  • Excessive job demands
  • Job insecurity
  • Conflicts with teammates and supervisors
  • Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks
  • Lack of training necessary to do the job
  • Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients
  • Unproductive and time-consuming meetings
  • Commuting and travel schedules

Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.

Common internally caused sources of distress include:

  • Fears: (e.g., fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party)
  • Repetitive Thought Patterns:
  • Worrying about future events (e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring)
  • Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations

Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to stress include:

  • Overscheduling
  • Failing to be assertive
  • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead

 

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Eustress vs. distress - the difference is subjective - Terrance - Jun 23rd 2013

The article stated that drawing a line between eustress and distress is difficult. A situation that one person sees as eustress, may put another into distress. That the categorization into the two types of stress depends upon the perception of the subject leads me to believe that the key to differentiation depends upon the subjects perception of whether or not the situation is within his/her ability to cope with it and come to a perceived positive resolution.

Stress Management - Daniel Mayiani - Jul 11th 2011

The following can be ways through which one gets stess either positive or negative: 

  • Injury or illness (oneself or a family member)
  • Being abused or neglected
  • Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Bankruptcy/Money Problems
  • Unemployment
  • Sleep problems
  • Marriage
  • Buying a home
  • Having a child
  • Moving
  • Taking a vacation
  • Holiday seasons
  • Retiring
  • Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby
    • Habitual behavior patterns eg procastination or lack of proper planning,overscheduling and lack of assertiveness.

    All these despite being positive or negative,leads to stress i.e eustress or distress

    good one - Susmita Roy - Dec 11th 2010

    This article is good one as well as very much helpful to students also.........

    Stress Management-eustress and distress - Daniel Mayiani Oltingidi - Nov 8th 2010

                 Though the word stress sounds simple,it is a hard thing to deal with especially if the counselors or in other words the helpers do not recognize one suffering from stress.It is very difficult to determine stressful events as stress in one context may not be stress in another context or what you consider stress may not be stress to me.Eustress is a positive stress which come from the word 'well' or 'good'.For example;having a child.This can be stress to someone else and not stress to someone else.To some this is a blessing while others consider it total stress.

                   On the other hand,distress is a negative stress that brings about negative scripts towards oneself therefore distress is psychological.It brings about mental illness if not attended to which disorganizes the individual and taking him/her far away from reality i.e having unrealistic thoughts.Depression is what follows where the individual is depressed or have depressive moods frequently.

                    Can eustress be overcomed? If yes,how can we help people overcome eustress if it is a positive stress and has sticked into their minds like glue?

    Abnormal psychology - Daniel Mayiani Oltingidi - Oct 26th 2010

         Psychology and abnormal psychology in general place have place genius people in the category of abnormality.I think that genius poeple are more advantaged even in classes as they undestand faster than others.Is understanding faster an abnormality or a disorder?May be yes and to a large extend no.This is because we can call the non-genius as well abnormal as they learn slowly and take time to understand concepts.On the other hand(the reason i'm refering to them as 'abnormal')is that they also do what others do not do-thinking faster.Can distinguishing between the two be a stress?Of course it brings cognitive dissonance and need to be reworked on.

    very helpful - naz - Jun 20th 2010

    Your explanation of the differences between eustress and distress was very helpful. I can now continue my class on this topic without any doubts. Thanks for your the usefull information.

    simple break down - nicky - Apr 18th 2010

    thanks i was doing one of my assignments and wanted to get a distinctive idea of what was the difference of the two stressors....thank you for conveying it in an effective yet simplistic way....even my eight year old brother could read and digest your break down.

    stress - the stress guy - Apr 5th 2010

    i love my stress i do everything i can to have stress. i would say im addicted to stress. but sometimes i go insane.

    Good brief - psych@Bowlby - Mar 26th 2010

    Thank you for this info, tis help indeed

    Good article on stress - EG - Mar 14th 2010

    This article has been very helpful to me in my psychology classes. Thank for the research:).

    Thanks - Mata Davie - Jun 30th 2009

    Hi there,

    I have just done an essay on Stress and found this information to be very helpful, thank you for posting it

    Good Info . . . - CPT Main - Jun 25th 2009

    I am putting together a 30 min class on an Introduction to Stress Management for ROTC Students and this document has provided me with some useful information.  My inquiry was on eustress, which I could figure out the meaning of it based on it's use, but I wanted to search for a little more detail.  I think it's good that you went into the typical stressors and was pleased with the simplicity and introduction to the contrast of eustress and distress.  This is definitely be useful to the average person, like myself.  More details are always useful, but that will also include complexity.   I'm not sure what the average audience for this site is, but your document worked for me.  Thanks.

    CPT Main

    Eustress Vs. Distress - - Feb 5th 2009

    Welcome Chums,

    By the way author.... you have general info on stress, maybe you should go in more detail about eustress vs. distress.

    Try making a chart or table,

    Aight have a good 1...

    See ya

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