The Difference Between Positive and Negative Stress

Dr. David Hepburn
Apr 30 · 3 min read

Most people think of stress as a blanket term that describes any kind of negative thought or emotion, which is why stress is generally seen as something to be avoided at all costs. There are in fact two different kinds of stress though: one positive (eustress) and one negative (distress), and their effects on the body are completely different.

Distress can lead to constant anxiety, decreased mental and physical performance, and debilitating health effects over the long-term. Eustress on the other hand can lead to improved performance and a surge in focus and energy.

Dr. David Hepburn, who consults businesses on how to effectively manage and channel both kinds of stress, says that mindset and perception often play a key role in stress, which is why the same stressor can manifest as distress in one person and eustress in another.

Common Causes of Negative and Positive Stress

While not everyone responds the same way to stressors, there are some general rules. Distress is often caused by situations or scenarios in which we feel overwhelmed or helpless, or in which we otherwise have little to no control.

The death of a loved one, especially one who left us unexpectedly, often manifests as distress. We are powerless to do anything about what happened and are often filled with negative emotions like regret and despair.

However, it doesn’t take such an earth-shattering event to cause distress. Other common causes of distress include:

· Money problems

· Legal problems

· Relationship problems

· Injury or illness

· Abuse or neglect

· Job insecurity

· Excessive work demands

Eustress typically manifests in response to scenarios which bring about change to our lives or which we feel capable of managing, even if they’re challenging or somewhat frightening. These could include:

· Starting a new job

· Moving to a new city

· Having a child

· Beginning a new project

· Confronting a manageable deadline

How to Turn Negative Stress into Positive Stress

According to Dr. David Hepburn, no event is inherently negative or positive, it’s our perception of those events that makes them so. Since perception and mindset play a big role in regulating our stress responses, it’s completely within our power to consciously and subconsciously control our reactions and turn a potentially distressing event into a positive one.

We all have a certain measure of “self-efficacy”, which is the sense we have of our own competence and ability to handle stressful situations. And studies have shown that our “perception” of our self-efficacy matters far more than any inherent ability we may have.

If we believe we’re capable of managing difficult and potentially stressful situations, then when one pops up, it’s far more likely to manifest as eustress that we feel capable of managing. And like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we will often handle that event well as a result, putting whatever stress it generated to work for us.

Likewise, when we anticipate falling apart at the first sign of struggle or stress, that’s exactly what is likely to happen, as distress flows over us in waves and crushes our resolve and ability to handle even the most innocuous of challenges.

While it may sound trite, it really does come down to having a belief in ourselves, in this case the belief that we can deal with and handle stress.

Dr. David Hepburn

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