Stress is without any shadow of doubt one of the leading and most common factors contributing to mental health issues and general wellbeing in global society today. Dubbed as the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ by the world health organisation, stress is estimated to cost businesses around $300 billion a year in the U.S alone. Yet there is a less known sunny side to stress that is starting to attract more interest in both academic circles and the public at large.
Eustress, a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye, literally translates to ‘good stress’.
It points at the fact that under certain circumstances stress can have a beneficial and healthy effect on us. It can offer an opportunity to grow, meet challenges, sharpen our skills and motivation, and leave us feeling fulfilled with more meaning and hope.
Stress Hormones & Mood Enhancing Neurotransmitters
Although like many other aspects of our wellbeing, stress and its effects are best understood by taking a more holistic approach — that is understanding its impact across different aspects of human life, from physical and psychological to social and spiritual, understanding what happens inside our body is a very good starting point. After all everything that happens in all aspects of our life has to a large extent a physical cause or effect. In short, our body, with all its physical and biological processes, is intrinsically connected to our mental, emotional, social and spiritual life. These aspects of our being are all facets of the same thing. Each one of them is a key to understand and hack the others. For instance you can ‘hack’ your physiology through breathing and posture and affect your mental state and mood, or conversely, you can recall a particular happy moment and changes start happening inside your body such as the release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones.
Science has long identified the role of certain hormones that are closely related to stress, Adrenaline and Cortisol being the two main ones. These two hormones have a primary role in affecting our mind and body to respond to a given situation when we perceive danger. Adrenaline is in fact nicknamed the ‘flight or fight’ hormone since it is quickly released by the adrenal glands to respond immediately to what the mind perceives as a threatening situation. Imagine you are walking in a dark alley in a dodgy neighbourhood at night when suddenly someone rushes out of a corner. At that instant your body undergoes a whole series of changes — your muscles get tense, your breathing gets faster and you may start sweating. All this had the evolutionary purpose of survival. When faced with such a perceived threat, the body has to quickly take a decision whether to either run away from the danger or try to muscle through. In extreme situations, the failure to do this might result in losing life and limb. However in less drastic situations such as for instance receiving a call in the middle of the night, the same cascade of bodily reactions will still be triggered.
The same thing can be said of Cortisol which is another stress related hormone (in fact nicknamed the stress hormone) but one which is released more slowly in the body than adrenaline since it goes through a longer chain of messaging inside the brain and autonomic nervous system. It is mainly responsible for regulating fluid and blood pressure, immunity, digestion and growth. In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving. The problem with these stress related hormones, particularly cortisol, is the negative effects incurred to the mind and body if sustained for a prolonged period of time. A lot of emphasis and research have been put into this since it is a major factor with problems in health and wellbeing.
Research and study have found various links between prolonged presence of cortisol in the body and depression  since it affects the dopamine and serotonin production levels. More importantly, it has also been observed that continuous release of cortisol can also affect the autoimmune system  thus leading to disease and health problems. The point to be taken here by looking at stress from a biochemical perspective is that the imbalance (or the optimal balance) in these hormones and neurotransmitters will have an affect whether a situation is experienced in the body as harmful stress or positive stress. The right amount of stress hormones and neurotransmitters in our body on the other hand are both caused by and affect how we perceive a situation and what is our predisposition to respond to given situations.
Which Activities are more Prone to lead to Eustress?
Strictly speaking any situation can either result in positive stress or unhealthy stress depending on many factors. These factors include the individual’s emotional predispositions, beliefs, past experiences, when and where the situation is happening and whether there is a optimal balance in the stress related hormones as mentioned above. Put simply, stress is very subjective since the same experience can result as a healthy challenge for one person or highly stressful for another. Having said this there are situations which cannot be considered as extreme by any measure and that are normally, and on average, conducive to positive stress or eustress. These would include but not limited to the following:
Working on a challenging project or task:
This is possibly one of the most common situations that can best describe the positive effect of stress. This could be a task or project, say at work, that is demanding — perhaps there are deadlines and targets – and requires that certain obstacles and challenges are overcome. Yet despite, the obstacles and the fact that there is a certain level of uncertainty in the outcome, you feel that you have the resources and the ability to succeed. There is an interim period before the result is achieved that creates a certain amount of stress but this stress is helping you sharpen the focus and increase the stamina because you are already seeing the possibility of succeeding and know that you have at least a certain amount of control over it.
The idea of balance between level of skill, control and difficulty is captured in Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of ‘flow’ (or what otherwise is known as ‘being in the zone’). Csikszentmihalyi idea of being in the flow is when someone is so absorbed and totally focused on the task at hand that he or she loses awareness of the surroundings. The real point of intersection with eustress is that this state of flow happens when the person faces a task that is not too easy or repetitive (this would otherwise be considered dull, boring and feel unmotivated) and neither is it too much above the person’s skills and other resources (as this would easily turn into negative stress or worse). The state of flow is an optimal place in between that challenges the person, getting him slightly under stress yet motivated at the same time knowing that with the right amount of focus and work, the result can be achieved.
Physical exercise or sports
Any form of physical strain or exercise done in moderation and in the right way is a form of eustress. Everyone has felt that sense of physical stress in trying to finish a run or a workout than feeling that satisfying sense of wellbeing afterwards even if the body is physically tired. The stress here is almost entirely physical although the effects can spill through emotional and mental wellbeing. In fact in connection with the neurotransmitter dopamine already mentioned above, regular physical exercise is known to keep a healthy level of dopamine production among other benefits. As pointed to earlier on, the physical, mental and emotional are intrinsically tied together and so the positive and negative effect of stress is also intimately related to any one of these levels.
Doing something thrilling
Watching a thrilling movie or riding a rollercoaster, for example, are activities that are considered to create eustress. Anything that causes a certain amount of thrill and excitement will also subject the mind-body under the right amount of healthy stress. The adrenaline rush when riding the rollercoaster causes a brief moment of stress to the body but this is balanced by the amount of pleasure and excitement coupled with the fact that the risk of danger is perceived to be contained at a minimal.
As with doing sports and physical exercise, when people are competing, the mind and body gets totally absorbed in the activity. It goes under a state of flow. Now it has to be understood that different people compete differently, if at all, and some might be over-competitive to a point that is causes harmful stress. Yet once again, the keyword is balance and ‘right amount’.
Wim Hof breathing
This is my favourite form of eustress and I do it at least a couple of times a day. This breathing technique is championed and advocated by extreme athlete Wim Hof popularly known as ‘ice man’. The technique simply involves doing a number of deep and rapid breaths than holding out the final breath for a minute or two before inhaling. This oxygenates the body and brain and overstimulates the nervous systems. It therefore momentarily puts the body under a certain amount of stress but this stress positively affects the body, nervous system, neurotransmitters and auto-immune system in the long run. In fact Hof himself is known to be able to directly affect the autonomic nervous system and auto-immune system and perform extreme feats such as having his body submerged in ice for hours.
The Answer is Within
As already emphasised above, and should also be more clear by now, the line between stress and eustress is very subjective. What is meant by subjective here has a lot to do with how a person perceives and reacts to a given situation. Perception is key and perception is highly influenced by other internal factors such as mental states, emotions and beliefs.
In the case of someone being in the flow while doing a challenging task, for example, there is a certain intrinsic motivation in doing it and thus the stress that the person goes through is experienced as eustress. Intrinsic motivation is an important factor in deciding whether an experience will result in eustress or stress. If on the other hand the person perceives that the task at hand is beyond his skills or abilities or perhaps he has a belief or fear that he is not able to succeed, then chances are that the situation will create stress rather than eustress.
A positive attitude and mindset is also a very important factor deciding whether a given situation will be experienced as eustress or not. Someone who has in general a very positive outlook on life and is not afflicted by negative thought patterns or fears will tend to experience eustress more often than someone who is not. On the other hand, it can be also argued that someone who tends to be more positive on the whole might also have very balanced levels of dopamine and serotonin production since as hinted earlier on, the biological and the mental & emotional are in confluence.
Yet another internal asset that provides a person with the ability of turning a potentially stressful situation into a positive one is self-esteem and self-image. Together with a positive mindset and intrinsic motivation, having good self-esteem is an important key in experiencing eustress more often. Imagine a common situation where someone is job hunting but for some time he or she has been having a long series of turndowns. Two or three months have passed and no job yet. The clock is ticking and the mental fortitude and attitude is the only real thing that will define how a person will react to the situation. Someone with low self esteem or who tends to be negative will start feeling withdrawn, defeated or just give up, if that is ever an option. Someone with more self esteem and a more positive take on life might start taking it as a hard yet beautiful challenge. He or she rolls up the sleeves and starts pushing harder on it, perhaps revising the strategy, learning new skills, or start seeking a new career path. Yes there might be moments where stress will get to you but for most part of the journey, someone with those internal assets will tend to experience positive stress that on hindsight, once the challenge is over, will be seen as another life lesson learnt, a feather in the cap or a good success story that will help motivation and self-esteem further in the future.