Enhancing Eustress while Coping with Distress

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We deal with stress almost every day.  The word “stress” always hangs on the edge whenever things get tough at work or home.  According to Selye (1956), bad stress or distress is a feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed what that individual is capable of doing.”  It relates to the negative physiological, psychological and behavioral responses when excessive pressure and demands are placed on people, threatening their well-being.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion states that when we encounter a stressor, our body undergoes specific physiological changes (Cannon, 1927).  These physiological changes are interpreted emotionally as fear.   Adrenaline and Cortisol (commonly known as a stress hormone) are released to provide quick energy to enable the body to respond to this “fear”.  These hormones increase our alertness and readiness to “fight or flight” – defend ourselves or escape from the perceived threat or danger.  Simultaneously, our heartbeat and blood pressure increase and our vision and hearing become more acute.  Generally, when the threat disappears, our body will revert to normality.  If the threat is perceived to endure, then the body experiences a prolonged distress and may escalate to the extreme of a chronic stress.  Chronic stress inhibits our immune system and key body functions and subsequently raising our susceptibility to illness.  Psychologically, it can lead to burnout and even anxiety and depression – disorders that impede our daily functioning and require treatment.  Behavioral symptoms of people suffering from stress include loss of interest, aggression, sleeplessness, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and alcoholism (Bradshaw, 1991).

Many people associate stress to only distress and deem it as something undesirable.  Stress is not necessary bad.  In fact, there is good stress, known as eustress, which is indicated by hope, positive affect, satisfaction, trust and meaningfulness (Simmons & Nelson, 2000a).  Eustress gives us the positivity, meaning, alertness, challenge and motivation to be productive to accomplish tasks (Selye, 1974).

So one of the keys to good health and well-being lies in coping with distress while enhancing eustress.  There are several ways to manage distress (Seaward, 2010).  Only two strategies will be discussed here.    Stress management strategies may work either through the psychological pathway or the physiological pathway or a combination of both.  In my personal opinion, it is better to manage stress by firstly curbing emotional interpretation from escalating through the physiological pathway.  According to the James-Lange Theory of Emotion, the normalization of physiological responses will cause the brain to interpret normality while reverting the body to a normal functioning state, thereby preventing emotional interpretation to trigger the fear factor.

Relaxation Response (RR) is an easy relaxation practice developed by Harvard physician, Benson (1975) that embraces meditation and deep breathing to achieve relaxation.  During the practice, an individual will repeat a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase or muscular movement to achieve concentration while simultaneously maintaining an easy, natural and deep breathing.  Each time when another thought intrudes, the participant shall repeat passively the earlier word, sound, phrase or prayer.  During RR, the body moves from a state of physiological arousal to a state of physiological relaxation.

Now, if physiological relaxation fails, cognitive restructuring techniques may be effective in managing stress psychologically by altering and reframing the evaluation and perception of stressors.  The Cognitive Behavioural Technique (CBT) proposes that people are directly responsible for generating distorted and negative thoughts and emotions which result in stress, anxiety or depression.  This therapy therefore focuses on altering and modifying thought patterns (cognitive change) and the resulting behaviour (cognitive restructuring).  One will learn to refute cognitive distortions, by replacing negative thoughts and irrational beliefs with more accurate and positive ones (Varvogli & Darviri, 2011).  A simple illustration – when you saw a friend who passed you by without acknowledging, an unhelpful thought would be jumping into the conclusion that your friend was upset with you and did not like you.  This might lead you to be stressed about why your friend did not like you!  However, you can reframe the thought and tell yourself that your friend may be in a rush or your friend has a poor eye sight, hence, he/she has not spotted you.

There are also two pathways to enhance eustress.  Either by reframing our cognitive interpretation of stress (CBT), which will convert distress to eustress or by enhancing eustress directly.   Involving and engaging appropriately with family, work and society add meaning and hope to life (Simmons & Nelson, 2000a).  For example, spending quality time with family, taking up work challenges and involving in volunteering work and even having inspirational conversations with people can help enhance eustress.  Involving and engaging do not require performance perfection which may cause undue distress.  Less-than-perfection should not be deemed as performance failure, but rather as a satisfaction of trying new things and the hope to do better next time.  Involvement and engagement can help us to stay intellectually stimulated and achieving resilience to stress.

The next and the most important key to well-being is what I called “stress by choice”.  Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and Gold and Roth (1993) believe that stress appraisal and the coping process have profound influence on the extent of the response to a stressor.    In other words, distress and eustress exist on the same continuum.   Whether to experience the former or the latter, depends very much on one’s choice of interpretation of the stressor it encounters (Caprara & Steca, 2005).  And finally, whenever you experience distress, remind yourself that the “fear” in anticipation of a threat that may not even occur is as irrational as anticipating an imaginary flower pot falling on you each time you step out of your house is real.

References

Benson, H. (1975). The Relaxation Response. HarperCollins.

Bradshaw, R. (1991). Stress management for teachers: A practical approach. The Clearing House. 65, 43-47.

Cannon, W. (1927). The James-Lange theory of emotion: A critical examination and an alternative theory. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 106-124.

Caprara, G. V., & Steca, P. (2005). Affective and social self-regulatory efficacy beliefs as determinants of positive thinking and happiness. European Psychologist, 10(4), 275-286.

Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer Publishing.

Seaward, B. (2010). Managing stress: Principles and strategies for health and well-being (3rd Ed.). Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Selye, H. (1974). Stress without distress. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company

Seyle, H. (1976). The stress of life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Simmons, B.L., & Nelson, D.L. (2001b). A comparison of the positive and negative work attitudes of home health care and hospital nurses. Health Care Management Review (Summer), 63-74.

Varvogli, L., & Darviri, C. (2011). Stress management techniques: Evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal, 5(2), 74-89.

Image credit: iStockphoto

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About the Writer

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Jennifer Sin is a firm believer in continuous learning. As a part-time facilitator and trainer, she leverages her decades of cross-cultural corporate experience and her double degrees in Psychology and Science to empower professionals and leaders to realize their potential, using simple yet powerful evidence-based psychological tools and principles.

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