The Positive Side of Stress

Discovering eustress and the biology of stress

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Stress is ubiquitous. It’s rare to go a day without experience, at some level, a stressful moment. But, I’d argue, that this isn’t as bad as pop-psychology makes it out to be.

We experience distress when a personally significant situation exceeds our capabilities. In these instances, failure is almost a certainty, but stress provides much-needed support to meet the demands placed on us. Stress itself is a neutral response and many of its effects, taken in the short term, are good for us. Psychologists call this eustress.

Unfortunately, stress has received a bad rap over the last twenty years. Positive psychologists have urged us to purge stress from our lives. That we should worry endlessly over its cumulative effects. While chronic stress can be devastating, it’s unfair to conflate it with everyday stress.

How do our Bodies Respond to Stress?

When stressed our body releases the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and oxytocin. These chemicals instruct the liver to produce more glucose. In turn, glucose provides us with a boost of energy meant to aid us in confronting challenges. For most individuals, excess blood sugar is then reabsorbed into the body.

Cortisol has additional impacts on our body, primarily in the brain. Cortisol, a glucocorticoid, impairs memory retrieval, but increase memory formation. In response to undue pressure, this is precisely the behavior we want. We need to act to avoid uncertainty and danger, not be bogged down by memories of similar events. Sharp memory formations help us to avoid stressful situations in the future. Stress ensures memories form with deep links to the experience.

When the body releases oxytocin, it’s encouraging you to seek support from friends and family. Shelley Taylor, director of Social Neuroscience, studies the effects of stress and oxytocin. When oxytocin releases during times of social duress or anguish it may, “lead people to seek out more and better social contacts,” she says. The direct effect of stress-related oxytocin is still under investigation. But research indicates that our bodies release it to encourage positive social behaviors.

Each of these responses is beneficial in its own right. Taken together they create an environment of action and support. One that shows we should see stress as positive. Or at the very least, a neutral response to challenges.

The Purpose of Stress
The purpose of stress is to help us respond to challenging situations in the short term. When followed by rest our body returns to homeostasis.

Again, stress is a neutral response. What impacts us is the extent of the response and severity of the stressor. We weren’t meant to accommodate multiple, simultaneous burdens or especially severe ones. Long-term unemployment or the loss of a spouse is outside its role. Those events require the support of social interaction, precisely what our brain primes us to do.

Stress acts as a motivator under pressure. It helps us focus, trains our thought, and provides energy and supports. But our response to these feelings determines the impact. Does that focus feel like fixation? Do we feel ourselves getting anxious or energized? The answer to that question outlines our response. When we have a positive response, we’re experiencing eustress. A negative response is considered distress.

What Prompts Eustress?

Plenty of experiences demonstrate the beneficial effects of stress. We naturally enter into states of eustress, but we attribute our excitement and energy to being, “pumped up.” Rather than recognizing it as positive side-effects of stress.

Engaging in a Challenge/Setting Goals
Challenge is essential to a productive, fulfilling life. They push us towards our limitations and sometimes ask us to exceed them. This can come from taking on new responsibilities at work, becoming a parent, or a complicated exam. These are often welcome changes, but they will cause mental and physical pressure. That’s a positive thing, it helps us develop and discover new strategies to cope with stressful situations. And, we can take these new tools into other areas of our life.

Competing lets us measure our abilities against peers. It provides us with the opportunity to assess our strengths and weaknesses in a safe, structured environment. This environment offers an external cue for positive interpretations of stress. If competition results in failure, we have the opportunity to address our shortcomings and grow.

The competition needs to be one you seek out. Being held to the standards of others reduces our autonomy and can lead to a negative mindset.

Factors of Eustress

Eustress is dependent on one’s self-efficacy, mindset, outside supports, and self-control. Self-Efficacy is the primary factor of whether we perceive a situation as causing eustress or inviting distress. It is the belief in our ability to overcome a challenge or goal. As Hans Selye, who first demonstrated the existence of biological stress, said,

“It is not stress that kills us, but our reaction to it.”

The higher our self-efficacy, the more likely we are to perceive it as a positive experience. So, when we act as if a task is a challenge, rather than an obstacle our assumptions around difficulty change. Low self-efficacy negatively impacts you, conflating actual demand with your perception. Poor perception may make you hesitant even to start as you ‘know’ the result will be a failure.

Mindset, taken from Carol Dweck’s work, models our perception to challenge. Individuals with a growth mindset understand that even failure can have positive outcomes. Also if we don’t meet a challenge now, the experience will make us more likely to achieve in the future.

Those with a fixed mindset, like those with low self-efficacy, believe they have set abilities, and that failure is an obvious outcome. The difference is in response to that failure. Individuals with a fixed mindset assume it is impossible for them to improve. They believe we establish our abilities at an early age. Reframing mindset can pivot distress towards eustress.

With high self-control, we’re able to focus on challenges and limit procrastination. This gives us the benefit of time. The more time we, the more opportunity we have to experiment with different solutions. Allowing ourselves the time to experiment mitigates the feelings of dread we associate with failure.

Outside Supports: Not every challenge needs to rest squarely on our shoulders. We have many opportunities in life to seek out help and advice to better handle negative experiences. These support illicit an environment that reduces the mental burden and increases efficacy. Even if you don’t end up reaching out for support, the comfort of it can be enough to motivate you.

Reframing Stress

We often hear about the adverse effects of stress; the toll it can take on our body, and it’s pervasiveness in daily life. But stress isn’t some physiological evil, it’s a necessary function of everyday life. We all experience its positive and negative effects. In many instances our perceptions, not stress itself, influence those outcomes.

If we live in a constant state of worry, we’ll only produce more opportunities for negative stress to creep in. Instead, I’d advocate we develop self-awareness. It’s a critical step to understanding our abilities and how we navigate challenges.