Distinguishing between good stress and bad stress:

Eustress

Good stress works hard for us on our behalf, and we benefit from it.  Sometimes called “eustress”, it helps us get motivated, find the energy, focus, and get going.  It is like an excellent fuel that helps us engage, follow through, and complete.  Mobilized, eustress improves performance.

The sensation or experience of good stress is satisfying, exciting, engaging, positive, and healthy.

Eustress is naturally active for a short time – a period of productivity that naturally gives way to rest and relaxation in its right measure.  Like oil in the machine, this good form of stress keeps us moving smoothly from inactivity and rest to activity and production and onward into inactivity and rest again.  Rest becomes action becomes rest becomes action in this smooth flow where easy transitions are fueled by eustress.  There is no getting “stuck” in the action state.  There is also no getting “stuck” in the resting state.

Eustress “kicks in” just when you need it – and not before.  When you find yourself in a resting state and “can’t imagine” doing something you need to do, this is understandable.  You can’t imagine engaging in the action because your eustress is naturally not active yet.  It’s hard to feel excited about engaging in a future task without the fantastic fuel of eustress.  (Such as in the Sunday afternoon blues).

In fact, imagining having to engage in a future task when your eustress is not activated often triggers an acute distress (bad stress) reaction – you might begin to feel agitated, irritable, anxious, or depressed.  If you don’t have to think about some future task before the fact, don’t.  Instead, be where you are and focus on the resting-state activities of the moment, savouring and enjoying them.

When at last you do have to take action – when it’s time to work – your eustress will naturally kick in, and the task will be easier than you expected.  People often say that “the time leading up to the event was harder than the event itself.”  We can thank eustress for that – and we can skip the misery we put ourselves through in “the time leading up to the event”.  Have faith in eustress and get to know it – it is a gift that carries 90% of the load for us.

Distress

And now for the bad stress: distress.

Distress is entirely different from eustress.  With distress, instead of feeling excitement and a sense of engagement, you suffer in your thinking, you feel bad, your behaviour is negatively impacted, your performance suffers.  Eustress helps us and distress hinders us.  Eustress is productive and distress is counterproductive.

Instead of helping us to follow through on tasks and to improve our performance, bad stress has a harmful impact on all areas of our functioning: mental, emotional, behavioural and physical.  People are resilient and often fully bounce back from acute stress.  But if our stress response does not serve us well, bad stress can become chronic, leading to miserable and more entrenched downstream consequences such as chronic anxiety, panic attacks, depression, recurring patterns of interpersonal difficulty and conflict.

The Science of Stress

It all begins when “something happens”…

You are just going along, living your life, minding your own business, not bothering anyone, when suddenly, something happens, and it impacts you.  Anything and everything that “happens” has an impact on us.  What “happens” is not limited to the external environment.  Our internal thoughts are “happenings” as well, and we are impacted by our own thoughts and react to them, as if they were external events or happenings.  In any case, something happens, and we are impacted.

Next, we instantaneously assess what is happening to determine its threat level and the degree we figure we can cope with it.  Our assessment explains why different people have different stress responses to the same stressor: when a dog barks aggressively, one person approaches it to make friends while the other backs off.  Our assessment also explains why the same person has a different stress response to the same stressor depending on their state: we struggle to cope with a stressor when tired and hungry, but have little problem coping with that same stressor when rested and fed.

If the individual, lightning fast, concludes they can not cope with the threat, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) springs into action in an instant, providing the person with the strength, speed and agility to fight or flee from a physical threat.

How the body prepares for fight or flight:

The ANS activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis, also referred to as the “stress circuit”)
In the brain, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
CRH stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) into the bloodstream
ACTH then flows down to the kidneys
The adrenal glands on the kidneys release two more hormones: cortisol and cortisone
The adrenal glands release two neurotransmitters: epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline)

What cortisol does:

Raises glucose levels in the bloodstream, increasing the amount of energy needed to fight or flee
Glucose levels spike in the brain, sharpening focus and attention, speeding up thinking
Cortisol ramps up fuel in the body creating a surge of power
Cortisol shuts down all systems irrelevant to dealing with the threat:
Digestion, wound healing, regeneration, sexual function all shut down and there is loss of appetite

What epinephrine and norepinephrine do:

Increase heart rate
Elevate blood pressure
Speed up reaction time
Produce a spike of energy and power

Cortisol and the neurotransmitters divert blood away from digestion out to the limbs:
Unpleasant sensations in the stomach
Butterflies
Stomach aches and possible full-blown stomach cramps
Spike of oxygen levels in the blood to prepare the large muscles for action
Profuse sweating to prevent overheating
Blood clotting chemicals released into the bloodstream in the case of injury
Pupils dilate to help us see better in the dark.

Interestingly, in response to a threat, the pituitary gland and the brain also release endorphins and enkephalins which buffer pain and contribute to some sense of well being.

Once the ANS has been mobilized and the body primed to respond in a way that it hopes will save its life, it has the usual choices: stay and fight in order to overcome the stressor, flee to a safer place, or freeze.  Whatever we do, our reaction to the threat is lightning fast and even automatic in a life-or-death situation.

Returning to baseline after the stress response:

We all know from experience that the acute threat dissipates since by its nature it is temporary: we overcome it or we flee from it.  The hormones and neurotransmitters of the ANS subside and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) comes back into play, providing relief by messaging the whole system to calm down.

Your heartbeat slows and returns in time to normal, your breathing slows as well, your muscles relax, your digestive system begins to work again and you get your appetite back.  The PNS is all about balance, growth, and the promotion of conditions that support long-term survival and well being.  Returning to baseline, you feel as if you get your “self” back again.

Situations and Conditions That May Prompt a Stress Reaction

Below is a list of common stressors.  However, when we acknowledge that stress reduction results from improving the way we respond to stressors, we can see how nothing in our external or internal environments necessarily “cause” stress, but that the reason we feel stressed is due to the beliefs, attitudes, patterns and habits that inform our decisions and choices in any given moment.

Nevertheless, we do recognize a list of “common stressors” when we see one.  Here are some of them:

Work, increased workload, overwork, issues of work-life balance
Too much sitting or standing at work, physical / social work environment, open plan office setting
Problems at work related to conflict and communication issues / interpersonal relationships at work
Productivity targets
Multitasking, over-scheduling
Lack of down time / me time / lack of privacy
Too much work / too many responsibilities, or not enough work / responsibilities
Job insecurity, unemployment
Debt, financial worries, overspending
Legal problems
Commuting, housing issues
Lack of support
Noise, pollution, mayhem, chaos, unsettling environment
Expectations or perceived expectations / pressures of parents, siblings, in-laws
Relationship issues, problems with spouse, partner
Inability to say “No”
Codependency – both a cause and an effect of stress
Separation, divorce, breakups, issues with one’s ex
Parenting, children
Current global political issues, perceived global threats and insecurities
Challenges finding satisfaction in job, career or life
Starving soul
Perceived lack of meaning in life, sense of emptiness, “no point”
Being over-stimulated or under-stimulated – daily life is too-fast paced or not fast-paced enough
Loss of control one was accustomed to, forced adaptations
Life transitions – both expected such as moving and marriages, and unexpected such as accidents, injury
Too much or too little sleep
Irregular diet, poor quality of nutrition
Compromised physical health, poor fitness, lack of satisfying exercise
Perception that others are not on your side, that they hold animosity towards you
Beating self up, negative self talk, negative personal stance in the world
Over-consumption, consumer lifestyle
Technology, social media, excessive screen time
Substance and process addictions
Fear: of flying, loss of employment, heights, public speaking, meeting new people, death
Competing with others / driven by competition
Perfectionism, obsession with marks / the standards of others / personal standards
The “frustrating world”, “life happens”, “jerks”, “idiots”…

A common stress response to common stressors leads to common stress-related issues…

Stress impacts how we think, how we feel, and how we behave.  It also impacts our physical body and our health.  Distress is counterproductive and has a negative impact, while eustress can actually help us to perform and feel better in certain situations.  Since it can be easy to underestimate the negative impact of distress on different areas of our life, a review of its consequences can be of benefit.

Click here to jump to the next post: the Impact of Stress.