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Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress)

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

We mentioned it earlier and it bears repeating: stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is simply the body's response to changes that create taxing demands. The previously mentioned Dr. Lazarus (building on Dr. Selye's work) suggested that there is a difference between eustress, which is a term for positive stress, and distress, which refers to negative stress. In daily life, we often use the term "stress" to describe negative situations. This leads many people to believe that all stress is bad for you, which is not true. Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics: 

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance

In contrast, Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems

It is somewhat hard to categorize stressors into objective lists of those that cause eustress and those that cause distress, because different people will have different reactions to particular situations. However, by generalizing, we can compile a list of stressors that are typically experienced as negative or positive to most people, most of the time.

Examples of negative personal stressors include:

  • The death of a spouse
  • Filing for divorce
  • Losing contact with loved ones
  • The death of a family member
  • Hospitalization (oneself or a family member)
  • Injury or illness (oneself or a family member)
  • Being abused or neglected
  • Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Bankruptcy/Money Problems
  • Unemployment
  • Sleep problems
  • Children's problems at school
  • Legal problems

Examples of positive personal stressors include:

  • Receiving a promotion or raise at work
  • Starting a new job
  • Marriage
  • Buying a home
  • Having a child
  • Moving
  • Taking a vacation
  • Holiday seasons
  • Retiring
  • Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby

Work and employment concerns such as those listed below are also frequent causes of distress:

  • Excessive job demands
  • Job insecurity
  • Conflicts with teammates and supervisors
  • Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks
  • Lack of training necessary to do the job
  • Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients
  • Unproductive and time-consuming meetings
  • Commuting and travel schedules

Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.

Common internally caused sources of distress include:

  • Fears: (e.g., fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party)
  • Repetitive Thought Patterns:
  • Worrying about future events (e.g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring)
  • Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations

Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to stress include:

  • Overscheduling
  • Failing to be assertive
  • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead