Distress needs no introduction to most of you. You see that word, and right away images come to mind of what your particular distress is. Maybe its being stuck in an awkward conversation with someone you hardly know, with your cheeks aching from that fake smile. Maybe its feeling trapped in your home, with toddlers who won’t eat their lunch or listen to anything you say. Maybe its being stuck in traffic, on the one day you were able to leave work early to hopefully catch a yoga class. We all know distress really well, and the consensus opinion is we could use a lot less of it if we want to live longer and healthier lives.
Eustress, on the other hand, is a word many of you may be unfamiliar with. This is described as “good” stress, the kind that challenges us and motivates us to grow. It’s the type of stress we feel when we sign up for an athletic event, giddy with anticipation for what we will achieve. It’s being promoted at work, knowing that the responsibilities will be greater, but so will be the rewards. Or its finally taking the time to write the novel you have always wanted to write, for better or for worse. Experiencing eustress is what cultivates many positive traits that contribute to longer and healthier lives.
Now, here’s something that will surprise you… Your body can’t tell the difference between distress and eustress on its own. They are both stress. Your body will likely go through the same stress response in both scenarios, whether its an increased heart rate and respiratory rate, dilated pupils or increased circulation to your extremities. Your body is preparing to handle the stress, no matter what form that is. What is it then, that determines whether a stress is distress, or eustress?
It’s your mind. Your perception. How you view a stress ultimately determines whether that stress will fall into the distress versus the eustress category. If you see the stress as a threat, your body will kick into survival mode and divert its resources to either fight or flee from the stress. We can agree that this type of response, when chronic, ultimately leads to poor health outcomes. On the other hand, when we view stress as a challenge that we are fully equipped to handle, we may experience some of the same physiologic changes, but we no longer need to engage the fight or flight system. Instead, we activate the parts of ourselves that see deeper than the surface, into the meaning behind the stress. We see the potential for learning and growth. We know we have a unique opportunity to experience the rich complexities of life, and we look forward to the challenge, unafraid. The main difference between the negative or positive effects of stress comes down to your own perception.
I won’t try to convince you that being stuck in an akward conversation, or soothing a fussy child, or sitting in traffic, isn’t stressful. These scenarios definitely have components to them we can all identify as negative. The challenge is to find meaning in each one of those scenarios, and recognizing that each distressful situation offers us an opportunity to evolve our views. We won’t be able to do this all the time, but we must commit to trying to do it as often as possible. Chances are that when you are in that awkward conversation, you will relax and potentially discover something interesting and genuine about the person you are talking to. Or that your calm presence will aid in ending the tantrum thrown by your angry toddler. Or that when you are stuck in traffic, you will use that time that you have to yourself to reflect on life, listen to a radio program, or sing out loud to your favorite song.
When you encounter a stress, no one else but YOU has the power to decide how it will affect your body. It can either be an accumulating negative force on your body leading you to various chronic illnesses, or a momentary challenge activating you to rise up and find a deeper meaning.
Your body is prepared to meet every challenge that comes your way. Why not in turn help your body by shifting your perspective of stress. By learning how to convert distress into eustress, you no longer have to stress about all the stress! Just find even a little deeper meaning behind your challenges and you will be well on your way to living a longer, healthier life.