When people think of stress, anxiety-racked situations usually come to mind – like running late for work when you have an important meeting or being in a financially difficult situation.
Stress is how your body responds to certain external stimuli. It has historically been linked to certain medical conditions that either have a cause or a complication. Researchers have identified strong ties between stress and certain chronic medical conditions such as hypertension and heart disease.
When you are stressed, your body may exhibit certain tell-tale signs. For example, you might break out in a sweat or experience heart palpitations. These signs are your body’s natural reaction to stress, otherwise known as its “fight or flight response.” It’s brought on by your brain flooding your body with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
When people talk about stress, they tend to use the term to refer to all types of stress. Many also assume that all types of stress are bad. What you might not know is that there are different forms of stress, and some of them may even be good for you.
Speaking broadly, there are two main types of stress: eustress and distress.
Any kind of stress that elicits negative emotions and reactions from you is typically distress. On the other hand, any type of stress that results in a positive reaction from you is eustress.¹
There is no scenario in which distress can be good for you. The feelings and emotions that distress evokes can adversely affect your mental and physical health.
Here are some practical examples of distress:
The death of a loved one
Threat of injury or bodily harm to yourself or a loved one
Tight work deadlines or a heavy workload
Getting in a fight with a loved one
Experiencing financial difficulties, such as debts or overdue rent
Living in a perpetual state of distress results in a condition known as chronic stress. If left untreated or mismanaged, over time, chronic stress can lead to medical complications such as high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, and heart diseases.
Common signs of distress include the following:
Eustress is the better kind of stress. You can infuse it into your life for a more well-rounded living experience. Scenarios that cause eustress have a positive effect on your daily life.
Examples of scenarios that can elicit eustress include the following:
Going to the gym
Starting a new hobby or business venture
Achieving a goal in your work or studies
Going on an adventure, such as a hike
Starting a new relationship or friendship
Eustress energizes you to overcome obstacles in your life that may bring on distress. For example, if work has been causing you to feel distressed, smashing a work goal or giving a brilliant presentation results in eustress. This can help you overcome the next work obstacle you come up against.
Many things can bring on eustress. However, it’s ultimately a highly individual experience. Running a half marathon may trigger eustress in a friend, but it may trigger distress in you.
Determining the things in your life that bring on eustress and distress is vital. Focus on eliminating or restricting the stressors that cause distress while ramping up the activities and scenarios that cause eustress.
Common signs of eustress include increased motivation and energy, excitement, improved productivity, and a positive outlook on life.
There’s science-backed proof in the form of research and studies that prove eustress can benefit you. Here are some of the ways stress can benefit your body and mind and what the science behind it says.
According to The Yerkes–Dodson law on stress, there appears to be a link between stress and improved performance up to a certain point. The theory is based on a study conducted on mice by the psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson.
During the study, Yerkes and Dodson discovered that delivering mild electrical shocks to mice in a maze motivated them to reach the end of the maze. However, the rats became confused if the electrical shocks were too strong.²
Based on these findings, the psychologists theorized that a certain level of stress could motivate you to complete difficult tasks. For example, you might start a paper two days before it’s due to give you extra motivation.
However, too much stress can completely disrupt your performance and have negative results. In the example above, starting a paper only a few hours before it’s due may cause too much stress.
Certain levels of stress in specific scenarios can boost your immune system.
In a 2012 study led by the Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists found that short-term stress resulted in heightened immune system responsiveness in rats.³ The study concluded that while long-term chronic stress is certainly bad for you, short-term stress stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response and boosts activity in the immune system.
A study published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in 2009 showed that short-term stress before surgery aided in a speedy recovery.⁴ This was compared to people who weren’t exposed to short-term stress before the surgery.
Another study conducted in 2013 revealed that manageable stress exposure could improve your resistance to certain diseases and conditions.⁵
When you are exposed to stress, your brain signals your body to release a cocktail of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Research shows that elevated cortisol levels can enhance the process of converting temporary memories into long-lasting memories. This process is called memory consolidation. Other stress hormones, such as epinephrine and corticosterone, also aid memory consolidation.⁶
Researchers in a 2019 study observed how being significantly aroused by a positive experience (like engaging in an activity that results in eustress) affects cognitive performance.⁷ Results showed that high arousal improved a person’s performance in cognitive tasks.
In a more recent study, researchers compared a group of people who reported that they did not experience daily stressors with another group who reported that they experienced at least one stressor over a period of eight days.⁸
The study revealed that although the group that experienced no stressors had fewer chronic health conditions, they also had lower levels of cognitive functioning. They were also less likely to experience positive emotional events or give and receive emotional support.
While some forms of stress (like chronic stress) have been linked to mental health conditions like anxiety, research suggests that low to moderate stress levels could actually help you become more resilient to developing mental health conditions.⁹ More research and understanding is needed, however.
Stress triggers your flight-or-fight response, an evolutionary tool that’s necessary to protect you from an imminent threat. Scenarios that trigger this response can often be unhealthy, but stressful experiences can enhance your decision-making skills in some cases.
A study observed soldiers in a mock prisoner-of-war camp simulation.¹⁰ Researchers found this caused them to produce a particular type of amino acid. As a result, they had improved cognitive functioning and decision-making abilities.
Children need to be exposed to certain levels of stress for well-rounded, healthy development.
Researchers in a 2006 study suggested that experiencing mild maternal stress during pregnancy may actually aid the child’s development.¹¹
The study followed a group of women from the middle of their pregnancy until their child’s second birthday. Researchers observed that women in the group who had been exposed to mild to moderate stressors during their pregnancy had children with more advanced developmental skills than those who weren’t exposed to stress at all.
Note that exposure to high levels of distress during pregnancy can cause complications and hinder the baby’s development.
Managing stress is crucial for healthy development and optimal well-being. While many studies show that experiencing mild to moderate stressors can occasionally be beneficial, severe long-term stress can be detrimental. Severe stress has been linked to many conditions, from ulcers to diabetes.
Stress can be beneficial when suitably harnessed. Properly managing it is crucial if you want to reap any of its associated benefits.
Some of the best ways to manage stress include:¹²
Stress and nutrition are often linked. With chronic stress, it can be challenging to maintain healthy eating habits. You may be more likely to binge on unhealthy foods like processed snacks that are high in sugar and fat.
Maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet can help you manage stress by boosting your immune system and providing you with the energy you need to handle life’s stressors.
The average adult needs 7–9 hours of quality sleep every night for optimal health and well-being.¹³
Getting enough high-quality sleep has many benefits, including reducing your stress levels. On the other hand, insufficient sleep can trigger distress by spiking stress hormones like cortisol.
Some research shows that you can be happier and healthier with as little as 60–90 extra minutes of sleep per night.¹⁴
Physical activity is a great way to combat stress and stay physically healthy. There are many forms of exercise, from walking and jogging to yoga and dancing. Pick an activity you enjoy and make it a daily habit.
Exercise is a known stress reliever. In fact, it creates eustress, the kind of stress that makes you happier and more motivated.
Exercise also reduces your stress hormones and triggers the release of endorphins, a happiness hormone.
Consuming caffeine and alcohol in large quantities can trigger and boost stress. Both are stimulants that increase the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cutting down or even eliminating caffeine and alcohol can significantly reduce unhealthy stress levels.
The power of social connections, especially when you are chronically stressed, can’t be underestimated.
People are social creatures and stand to benefit emotionally and mentally when they connect meaningfully with family and friends. Even a brief conversation with the barista who serves you coffee every morning can help you feel good.
Sometimes, simply communicating about a stressor with a loved one can help ease the burden and improve your symptoms.
No one is more aware of your mind and body’s needs than you. Your body tells you when it needs self-care, so take the time to provide it — even when you’re feeling stressed.
Make time to rest and relax and engage in hobbies that bring you joy.
If you are struggling to make time for self-care, try adding it to your schedule. Consider the time you have allotted for self-care as being just as crucial as the other meetings or events you have planned.
Meditation and mindfulness are critical tools for stress management.
Meditation can restore a sense of peace and calm whenever you feel anxious or overwhelmed. If you are new to meditation, no worries. There are many guided videos and audio clips on the internet to get you started.
There are two primary types of stress: distress and eustress. To live a well-rounded life, you should aim to limit factors that cause distress and introduce more scenarios that trigger eustress.
Getting a good amount of healthy stress is crucial. Some of the most meaningful things in your life are borne out of certain stressful situations and feelings. Removing all forms of stress from your life may also remove some of its meaning.
Research shows it’s more beneficial to focus on embracing a certain amount of stress than reducing stress. According to researchers, embracing stress can help you become stronger, happier, and smarter.¹⁵
The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and their existing health care professional(s). Have feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How much sleep do I need? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Stress and sleep (2013)
Toketemu Ohwovoriole is a healthcare writer who has spent the last six years creating content for companies and publications around the globe. She has been featured in The Huffington Post, Insider, Verywell, and other major publications. Her previous work delves into the mental and physical health effects of birth control, overall wellness, and sensitive women's healthcare issues.
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