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 and 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 will 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 make 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 it is nicknamed the stress hormone), but one that 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 research has 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 been observed that continuous release of cortisol can also affect the autoimmune system, thus leading to disease and health problems. On the other hand, the right amount of stress hormones and neurotransmitters in our body can react positively (depending on how we perceive a situation, as well as how we are predisposed to respond) and result in Eustress. The point to be taken here, by looking at stress from a biochemical perspective, is that these hormones can have a negative or positive effect, depending on how we feel about what is happening to us.
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 an 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 conducive to positive stress or eustress. These would include, but are 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’s 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 and neither is it too much above the person’s skills and other resources (as this would easily turn into negative stress). The state of flow is an optimal place in between the two that challenges the person, putting 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, then 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 (mentioned above) regular physical exercise is known to keep a healthy level of dopamine production, among other benefits. As pointed to earlier on, 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 to 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 pleasure and excitement, coupled with the fact that the risk of danger is perceived to be contained to a minimum.
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 it causes harmful stress. Once again, the keyword is balance.
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 by extreme athlete Wim Hof, popularly known as ‘ice man.’ The technique simply involves doing a number of deep and rapid breaths, then 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 autoimmune 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 with this method and perform extreme feats, such as having his body submerged in ice for hours.
The Answer is Within
As already emphasised above, the line between stress and eustress is very subjective–it 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 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. If, on the other hand, the person perceives the task at hand as beyond his abilities, or has a belief or fear that he is not able to succeed, then chances are that the situation will create stress instead.
A positive attitude and mindset is also a very important factor in 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 also be 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 and emotional are in confluence.
The Importance of Self-Esteem
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 and they have been turned down several of times in a row over a period of time. 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 and defeated, or just give up. Someone with more self-esteem and a more positive take on life might start taking it as a hard, yet worthwhile, challenge. He or she rolls up their sleeves and starts pushing harder, perhaps revising the strategy, learning new skills, or seeking a new career path. Yes, there might be moments where stress will get to you but for the most part, someone with those internal assets will tend to experience positive stress that, in 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 boost motivation and self-esteem even further in the future.