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Eustress: When Stress Is Necessary for Your Health

People talk a lot about bad stress, the kind that damages your health over the long-term, but not a lot is said about eustress. This is a form of stress that may not always feel good but is actually good for your body and mind. This type of stress is part of the human condition and it can be a helpful tool in your mental and emotional development. It can also improve your physical health in some fairly unexpected ways.

What is Eustress?

An image of a woman stretching her arms to the side while smiling in the living roomYou experience eustress when you’re pushed outside of your comfort zone to meet a challenge. It’s the good kind of stress. It actually feels almost exactly like regular stress and causes your heart to pound, adrenaline to pump through your veins, and speeds up your breathing. But psychologically and emotionally it’s very different and encourages good feelings like:

  • Satisfaction
  • Well-being
  • Excitement
  • Fulfillment
  • Sense of meaning
  • Confidence
  • Sense of power and control

You need eustress in your life if you’re going to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled. So, if you’re trying to reduce your general stress levels, it's important to keep in mind that not all stress is bad. Some examples of this good stress are:

  • Travel
  • Physical workouts or challenges
  • Challenging goals
  • Starting a new job
  • A new relationship
  • Trying a new hobby
  • Taking on more responsibility at work

Obviously, these events can go either way and you’ll need to check in with yourself to ensure that each experience is a challenge rather than a threat. This will help you enjoy all the health benefits of good stress while avoiding bad stress.

The Benefits of Eustress

Eustress has benefits for your physical, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. Physically, it can help you build a strong body, heart, and muscles. The most obvious example that helps with this is a physical challenge like a hard workout. When you push your muscles to their limits, you’re causing yourself to feel a good form of stress, and it has obvious benefits for your body overall.

Eustress also helps you develop emotional and mental resilience, an essential life skill. Life can be hard. Learning to live through these hard times and living with the stress of them will make you better able to cope with hard times and bounce back afterward. It also prompts good feelings like contentment, self-efficacy, and flow. It can also help to give you a sense of confidence, control and power.

The benefit of eustress is that it pushes you to do better. When you fail at work, when you fail at a relationship, you feel stressed and sad. Eustress makes you learn, change, and improve next time. After all, if you never experienced stress and pain when things went wrong, you’d have absolutely no impetus to change.

Distress or Eustress?

It might sound like there’s really no difference between eustress and its health-damaging opposite, distress, and to be frank the differences can be small. Here are some of the characteristics of distress so you can identify it accurately. Distress is:

  • Caused by something that’s a threat, like an illness or bad relationship.
  • It makes you feel overwhelmed because your physical, mental, or emotional resources are inadequate for facing the cause of the stress.
  • It's scary.

On the other hand, eustress is more of a challenge. You know it will be difficult, but you’re also feel good about doing it, so it’s exciting rather than frightening.

Distress and eustress can be interchangeable and can happen quickly. This doesn’t mean that you could or should always turn something difficult into a positive. Likewise, sometimes positive stress can become negative over time. Acknowledging negative emotions and events is incredibly important. However, with some events like job loss, it can be of great benefit to your life and your wallet to learn how to mourn and then get on with life, turning bad stress into good.

How To Welcome More Good Stress Into Your Life

An image of a mother and daughter laughing while looking at an ipadObviously, you need to be careful when cultivating eustress. What is good stress to you could be bad to someone else, so experiment with some ideas and see how you feel and how your body reacts. Some suggestions for including more positive stress in your life are:

  • Take on new responsibilities at work
  • Exercise
  • Try a new form of exercise
  • Learn something new every day
  • Set goals for your work and private life that feel good
  • Learn a new skill
  • Travel to new countries, cities, or even new neighborhoods in your hometown

Just be careful not to add too many new challenges to your life, as this can turn into negative stress very quickly if you become overwhelmed. And this is even truer if you have adrenal fatigue and need to watch your stress levels overall.

Adrenal Fatigue and Stress

Stress is usually a very bad thing when you have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), which is caused by ongoing stress. It causes the overuse of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response, which usually helps your body cope with stress. When the NEM stress response is chronically active, the changes it causes in the body eventually lead to key systems failing.

The adrenal glands are often the first to show malfunctions when you have AFS. They produce cortisol, which is basically the driver for the stress response. Over time, if the demand for cortisol remains high, the adrenals become fatigued and start to break down. And because the body and its circuits are interconnected, this causes a huge range of problems.

The body contains 6 circuits that are involved in resolving stress and become unbalanced in AFS. These circuits each contain 3 components, which typically work separately and together to resolve stress and perform other essential duties. When cortisol levels are high over a prolonged period and the health of the circuits starts to breakdown, these separate components start to malfunction as well. That’s why so many AFS sufferers experience a range of symptoms that seem to come from every part of the body; they do.

When to Add Eustress With AFS

When you have AFS, your body will be very sensitive to additional stress. As a result, you will need to be very careful if you’re thinking about adding more positive stress to your routine. Getting adequate rest should be your first priority. Work with your doctor and ensure that your body is strong and healthy enough to take more stress.

If your body is already overloaded and you try to add more positive stress to your routine, it will only make things worse. Your body will react as if it’s negative stress, with the same health threats and problems. Indeed, AFS basically makes any good stress into bad stress, so it’s usually best if you wait until you’re in a healthier place before you try adding additional stress to your life.

Benefits of Eustress for the Chronically Stressed (But Healthy)

an image of a group of people stretching their knees forwardHowever, if your health is improving and your doctor clears it, adding positive stress to your life could help your AFS in the following ways:

Building Physical Strength

In AFS, chronic fatigue is extremely common, and exercise usually stops. If you’re in a position to add or increase your exercise levels, this can improve your health overall and in the long term. Just make sure that you don’t overdo it and cause additional stress and strain for your body.

Improving Emotional Resilience

AFS can take a heavy toll on your emotional stability and strength. Feeling chronically unwell, afraid, and struggling to get the help you need from doctors who are unaware of AFS, can leave you feeling fragile and powerless. Solving small challenges in your life and feeling positive stress can give you a boost of self-efficacy and self-esteem. This may help to lift your mood and help you feel more in control of your life.

Boosting Mental Health

AFS can take a huge toll on your mental health. It causes brain fog and memory problems as well as sleeping problems, neurotransmitter imbalances, and other issues that can impact your mental health. That’s why depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are so common in AFS.

By setting small goals, achieving them, and taking on new challenges such as learning a new skill you may start to feel better about yourself and have a positive focus, which naturally improves your mental health. Just make sure that you do go slowly so that you don’t add more stress than your body can handle.

The Takeaway

Stress doesn’t have to be ongoing, negative, and damaging. It can also be eustress, a form of stress that’s essential for your physical health and your development. This kind of stress is essential for your physical, mental, and emotional health, so here’s how to ensure you have enough of it in your life:

  1. Learn to tell the difference between good and bad stress and how they could be manifesting in your life.
  2. Take on more challenges to encourage more positive stress.
  3. Monitor your physical health during the changes to ensure that you aren’t doing damage and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.

Stress can be debilitating, frightening, and even life-threatening. If you have too much bad stress in your life, you can click here for our Ask a Doctor system or call our office at +1 (626) 571-1234, where someone from our team can help in a free initial consultation.

© Copyright 2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Eustress is a form of positive stress that can actually benefit your mental, physical, and emotional health. If you don’t experience enough of this stress, then you probably need to make some changes to make your life more challenging and interesting.

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