Pursuing the Excellent Life
April 26, 2023

Stress, Good and Bad: How Eustress Can Help You Flourish

On this episode of Live Well and Flourish, we'll be talking about the power of stress and how it can impact our lives in positive and negative ways. We'll dive into the concept of Eustress and how it can lead to increased productivity, resilience, and adaptability. We'll look at how our perception of stress can affect our overall wellbeing and explore the ways in which we can reframe stress to see it as an opportunity for growth. Plus, we'll discuss practical strategies for building resilience and managing stress in everyday life. So, if you've ever wanted to take control of stress and use it to your advantage, this is the episode for you! 

Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/

The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, hazel.crossler@gmail.com.

Production assistant - Paul Robert


Craig 00:02 

Stress is an inescapable part of life, but stress isn’t always bad. In this episode, I talk about the differences between good and bad stress and how you can reframe your thinking about stressful situations so that you not only get through them, you grow from the adversity.

Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.

There’s no getting around it, life is often stressful. So, it’s useful to understand stress. We all kind of understand what stress is at some level, but what is it exactly? Stress is a psychological and physiological reaction to a perceived threat or demand. Stress occurs when you think the demands of dealing with an interaction between you and your environment exceed your resources, and therefore has the potential to affect your well-being.


Craig 01:17 

Here’s how it plays out. You’re out in the world and you experience some stimulus. You mentally appraise that stimulus to see if it has potential implications for your well-being. You do this by evaluating whether you have enough available resources to deal with the interaction. Let me give you an example. Suppose that your boss talks to you about taking on a big, important project. The interaction with your boss is what we can call a stressor. When you encounter a stressor, your brain goes into evaluation mode and you try to figure out two things. First, you try to figure out whether there are any implications for your well-being. This is called the primary appraisal. This appraisal can have three outcomes, you think the stressor is a threat, a challenge, or something that you can ignore. Then you go through a secondary appraisal that evaluates whether you have the resources available to cope with the stressor.


Craig 02:15 

After this appraisal process, you use coping strategies to try to manage the stressor. Coping is a pretty complicated topic, so we’ll save that for another episode. Today, I want to point out the importance of the appraisal process. We’ll put aside the “something you can ignore” outcome because it just doesn't matter and talk about the two other possibilities, the situation poses a threat or a challenge. A threat is just what it sounds like. You see the situation as being a danger to your well-being. A challenge appraisal isn’t quite as obvious though. When you appraise a situation as being a challenge, you think that it has the potential to enhance your well-being.


Craig 03:00 

But what makes you evaluate the new project as a threat and/or challenge? It comes down to whether you think you have the resources to cope with the demands of the new assignment. Demands can take many different forms. There can be time demands, workload demands, family demands, emotional demands, skill demands, social demands, the list just goes on and on. You mentally go through the list of possible demands, then weigh them against your resources. Resources can be related to the job, such as the amount of autonomy you’ll have, or the support you can get from your boss, or they can be personal, such as your skill set or your resilience, or your optimism, those sorts of things. If you think the demands exceed your resources, you’ll experience some form of stress.


This is where it gets really interesting. Even if you think the demands of the new project exceed your resources, you might not view this as a bad thing. A few months ago, I did an episode on one of my favorite sayings, “Comfort is the enemy.” The main message is that if you always stay in your comfort zone, you won’t grow. The same thinking applies here. You might see the new project as a way to grow your skill set, enhance your reputation, learn new methods and concepts … there can be all sorts of beneficial things that come out of a stressful situation.


Craig 04:23 

So, it turns out that there are two kinds of stress. Distress, or bad stress, is stress that harms your well-being. Eustress (spelled E U S T R E S S) is good stress, stress that can enhance your well-being in the long run. When you think a stressful situation is going to reduce your well-being you see it as a threat and you experience distress. When you see the situation as a challenge that can increase your well-being, you experience eustress. Distress is characterized by experiencing negative emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety, while eustress brings about positive emotions, such as joy, and happiness. Eustress can bring about many benefits, including increases in productivity and performance, greater resilience and improved adaptability, among many others.


Craig 05:18 

So, how would you appraise being assigned a big new project? Would you see it as a threat or a challenge? That’s a bit of a trick question; you might see it as both. Something like an important new work project might lead to improved well-being, and at the same time it might be bad for your well-being. You might imagine the potential career or financial gains, the opportunity to improve your skills, all sorts of good things. But you might also imagine mean longer hours of work, less time with family and friends, and risks if the project doesn’t go well. It’s really pretty common to simultaneously experience distress and eustress. First dates are a good example. They’re exciting but can also bring about anxiety.


Craig 06:12 

Distress might come in if you're worried about making a good first impression, running out of things to talk about, or experiencing those awkward silences. So, you might feel self-conscious, anxious or overwhelmed. 


On the other hand, you might view the date as an exciting opportunity to connect with someone really wonderful, share new experiences and learn about someone interesting. If so, you might feel excited and happy.


Although you might experience both distress and eustress from the anticipation of a first date, which one dominates is really a matter of how you view it. If you remind yourself of all of the great possibilities, your feelings of eustress will dominate the distress. If all you can think about is “What if I spill my drink?” or other negative possibilities, distress wins. There’s a critical message here. The event is objectively the same in either case. It’s your mindset, your opinion that determines which form of stress wins out. 


Craig 07:17 

Therein lies the secret to turning stressful situations into something positive. Remember Epictetus’ wise words, “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgments about things.” Believe it or not, you have the ability to reframe many stressful situations from threats to challenges, from bad stress to good stress. So let’s talk about cognitive reframing, changing our opinion of some situation. We'll stick with the example of the first date because it's kind of interesting and a little bit fun and most of us have gone through it at one point.


So you're ready for your big date and you get that hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach. That’s pretty natural. You might start thinking, What if I can’t come up with something to talk about? Or what if I drop my fork or get spaghetti sauce on my shirt? (Why in the world would you order spaghetti on a first date?) What if they think my job is stupid? What if they're a Cubs fan? (Sorry, just kidding Cubs fans, I’m sure you’re great people.)


Craig 08:23 

But you can shift your thoughts to all of the great possibilities. They’ll be really fun and  interesting. We’ll have a ton of great stuff to talk about. I’ll bet they’ll be very nice. We’ll get along great. They’re probably a huge Cardinals fan. These are all pretty much at least as likely as the negative possibilities. So, choose to focus on the good potential outcomes and end up having a great time.


Yeah, yeah, I know, easier said than done. But I want you to listen very carefully to this next part. …….. You really DO have the ability to reframe stressful situations so that you experience eustress instead of distress. Sure, it will take some effort, but it seems pretty worthwhile to me.


So, how can you do this? How can you move a stressful situation to eustress? Surprise surprise, I have some ideas. I’m going to use the new project example to explain.


Craig 09:21 

The first step is to acknowledge your feelings. It’s perfectly natural to experience some anxiety and discomfort in a stressful situation. These feelings are a natural reaction to a challenging situation like taking on a big project.


The next step is to identify negative thoughts and feelings. What thoughts are triggering the negative feelings? If you're gonna overcome these thoughts, you need to know that they exist. You might think “I don’t have the skills for this.” or “There’s no way I can deal with this much work.” Whatever.


Once you've identified the negative thoughts, challenge them. As podcast guru Dave Jackson says, “You’ve done hard things before.” Think about all the times you’ve done hard things, learned new skills and techniques, and managed heavy workloads. Use your ability to reason to develop evidence to counter the negative thoughts by drawing on your experiences and your abilities.


Craig 10:20 

Focus on your strengths and resources. Identify the skills, knowledge, people, and resources you can draw on to handle the demands of the new project. Remind yourself again of your past accomplishments and of your capabilities. This will help boost your confidence in your ability to take on the challenge of the new project. Remember that your personal network is a huge resource when taking on challenging tasks. You have lots of colleagues and friends you can call on to give you guidance and assistance; I'm sure they’d love to assist you.


Finally, remind yourself that the project represents a huge opportunity for growth. Embrace the challenge as a chance to develop new skills, expand your expertise, build resilience, and enhance your network. Think about all of the great benefits leading the project will bring. Be sure to bring in a little “second order thinking.” The growth that comes from the new project will let you take on even bigger projects in the future, which will bring further growth, leading to bigger projects and so on.


Craig 11:24 

OK, let’s move on to three things you can do this week to build your ability to see stressful situations as stimulating opportunities for growth.


First, when you’re in a stressful situation, accept that stress is a natural part of life. The initial experience of stress is pretty much an automatic reaction. The trick is to learn how to cope with the stress. Reframing is one approach, but there are others, which I’ll talk about in later episodes.


Second, remind yourself that some things are beyond your control. When you’re in a stressful situation, sometimes the first thing to do is to accept that the extent of your control is limited. Then turn your mind to what you can control. When you’re facing a really stressful situation, it’s easy to get caught up in all the things that are beyond your control. You can’t do anything about these, so focus on what you can control. You might find it useful to actually make a list. So, if you’re feeling stressed about something this week, stop, take a few deep breaths and write down a list of four or five things you can control. Remember that you can always control your opinion of the situation, but there are usually lots of other things you can do as well.


Craig 12:44 

Finally, make an investment and start building your resilience resources. These are resources that you can draw on to not only get through future stressful times, but to actually grow from them. For example, you might have strong emotional intelligence, or maybe you’re good at calming yourself and others, or you’re really good at coming up with creative solutions. You likely have more resources like this than you recognize. One good way to start building your list is to reflect on past challenges and what helped you get through them. So this week, take ten or fifteen minutes and actually write these resources down. Remember where you wrote them down then, later, when you’re feeling stressed, review the list to remind yourself of the resources available to you. This is kind of an interesting idea, so I’ll talk more about building a resilience inventory in a later episode.


Well, that’s it for now. Our closing quote is often misattributed to Albert Einstein, but actually comes from physicist John Archibald Wheeler:   “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” The next time you’re in a difficult situation, try to see the opportunities that lie within. Do so, and you’ll grow and flourish.


Until next time, be well my friends.

I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com

Until next time.