We typically view stress as a negative feeling, but not all stress is bad. Nor is all stress equal. In fact, stress is often a driver of success and can motivate us to achieve important outcomes. Researchers often divide the stresses we experience into two categories: distress and eustress. Distress is typically experienced as negative. It can make us anxious, worried, and concerned. Examples of distress might include fear related to future events, feelings of separation and isolation, and circumstances and expectations that feel beyond our control. Eustress, on the other hand, is more likely to lead us to feel excited, motivated, and focused. Examples might include new and significant life and work challenges, taking on new responsibilities, and learning new skills.
While we might assume it is the life experience, event, or force that will determine whether we feel positive or negative stress, the nature and power of the stress we feel is more likely to be determined by our perception of and reaction to what confronts us. The same event or experience can create distress for some people and eustress for others. This fact is important because it implies that we have the potential to control and redirect our attention and energy to reduce feelings of negative stress and increase the presence and intensity of positive stress.
Exercising our ability to shift the nature of the stress we feel is important in that persistent distress can:
- sap our energy and increase fatigue,
- rob us of sleep,
- threaten our physical health,
- undermine our emotional and psychological health, and
- lead to conflicts and challenges in our relationships.
So, how can we convert distress into eustress? We can start by finding an element or aspect of the stressor over which we can claim control. We might focus on our preparation for an upcoming event. We can find a creative or innovative way to approach the challenge. Or, we might enlist the assistance and coaching of a trusted advocate to help us navigate the situation. The key is to identify and claim control in ways that shift our focus and experience from powerless to powerful.
Second, we can identify and focus on short term goals and actions that break down experiences and situations that feel overwhelming and thus create negative stress. Charting a course toward success, even if in the short term, can build confidence and create momentum. Equally important, even small success and moderate progress can reveal opportunities and create new options that would not have been obvious before.
Third, we can explore and analyze the situation or challenge we face to better understand what it represents and how we might respond. We can use what we discover to create a list of potential options for our response and action. When the list is complete, we can choose the option or options with the greatest potential for success. Having chosen a path in which we have confidence can go a long way to reducing anxiety and increasing our positive stress.
Fourth, we can claim our ability to choose. Regardless of the circumstances we face, we always have a choice. We can focus on negative and uncertain aspects of a situation or resolve to find positive elements and opportunities to which we can give our attention and energy. A fact of life is that we tend to find what we look for. The more we expect positive experiences and outcomes, the more likely we are to find them. We can choose our attitude. We decide what to expect. We determine where to focus our attention. Often, these choices make the difference between whether we are discouraged and feel distress or are optimistic and experience the energy of eustress.