Stress doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Sometimes, it motivates you and helps you achieve your goals.

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Being excited about your graduation is an example of eustress. (nazar_ab/Getty Images)

Many people associate stress with something negative. Feeling “stressed out” implies you’ve got too much going on at once and you’re feeling overwhelmed in a way that’s negatively affecting your mind or body.

Yet stress itself isn’t inherently damaging. It’s just a word used to describe a mental and physical response to specific triggers.

But not all stress has the same effect on you. Some stress, such as the excited anticipation of the first day at your new job, can be a good thing. Experts call this eustress, or positive stress.

Those conflicts at work bringing you down? They would be a form of distress, or negative stress.

Stress, then, can be seen as a spectrum response based on how it affects you.

You can learn about the mental and physiological processes of the stress response here.

When most people talk about stress, they’re probably talking about distress.

Distress causes unpleasant effects like worry and anxiety. It’s often referred to as negative stress or “bad” stress, because of how it may affect you.

Distress may:

  • lead you to avoidance or decreased performance
  • cause you concern and feelings of irritability
  • feel unpleasant overall
  • cause you to be distracted or feel unable to focus
  • disrupt your appetite and sleep patterns

According to 2020 survey data, almost half of adults in the United States report experiencing stress that has negatively affected their behavior or mood.

When chronic or long term, distress can lead to mental and physical health challenges such as:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • high blood pressure
  • hypervigilance
  • diabetes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • headaches or migraine
  • digestive upset
  • changes in mood

Causes of distress can be as many and as unique as your thoughts and behaviors.

More than the trigger itself, it’s about how you experience it and how significant it is for you. What may be distressing to you may not be for the next person.

Some of the most common causes of distress include:

  • health conditions
  • work conflicts or insecurity
  • relationship challenges
  • bullying
  • experienced or perceived losses
  • running late to important events
  • financial difficulties
  • deadlines
  • war
  • natural disasters
  • punishment
  • lack of rest or heavy workloads
  • negative thoughts
  • public speaking if you fear it

Eustress is the opposite of distress in terms of how you experience it. It’s when stress creates pleasant effects and is often referred to as positive stress.

Some of its main characteristics are that it:

  • motivates you to action
  • increases excitement
  • often improves performance

An example of eustress is feeling butterflies in your stomach in anticipation of a first kiss.

Other common causes of eustress include:

  • participating in an important sports event
  • getting a work promotion or praises from your boss
  • attending your first day of school
  • engaging in public speaking if you enjoy it
  • having your wedding
  • organizing holiday gatherings
  • experiencing pregnancy and childbirth
  • going on a roller coaster ride

When you think about distress and eustress, the differences between the two may seem fairly clear.

Distress involves stress that discourages you, while eustress focuses on stress that motivates and excites you.

Other examples of how these differ include:

  • Distress may disturb your sleep while eustress may increase your energy.
  • Distress may lower your mood while eustress may stabilize or elevate your mood.
  • Distress may negatively impact your health while eustress may improve physiological function.
  • Distress may make you anxious while eustress may generate feelings of excitement.
  • Distress may make you feel overwhelmed while eustress may increase productivity.
  • Distress may decrease quality of work while eustress may improve your performance.

The debate surrounding distress and eustress

While experts agree the stress response can have positive or negative effects, some 2020 research suggests stress shouldn’t be classified as “good” or “bad.”

This debate stems from the fact all stressors initially affect the body in the same biological ways.

Regardless of the positive or negative effects of a stressor, for example, you may still experience increased physical reactions such as:

  • increased heart rate
  • elevated blood sugar levels
  • increased blood pressure

This may mean that the defining factor of distress or eustress is how you, as an individual, perceive that stress.

A family vacation may be a form of positive stress for one person but a form of negative stress for a person who doesn’t enjoy such trips.

For this reason, research from 2018 suggests it’s possible to cultivate your ability to change perceived distress into eustress. In other words, reassessing your stressors and managing your responses can make all the difference.

An example would be changing your perception of competition in the workplace from something overwhelming to an opportunity for learning time management and interpersonal skills.

The stress response can have both positive and negative effects on your mind and behavior.

When a stressor causes you concern and fear, it’s can be referred to as distress. When it creates a pleasant sensation that motivates you to act, it can be called eustress.

Which stressors cause distress and eustress, however, may be up to you. What you view as negative may be positive for someone else.

If you’re feeling more distress than eustress in daily life, you may be able to shift your perception by looking for positive ways to react to stressors.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or are experiencing health consequences from distress, it may be a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional for help.

They can work with you in developing stress management strategies while your general care provider can address any physical challenges you may be experiencing.