Within the last two months, a few exciting yet stressful things happened to me all at once. I started a new job (by choice) with new responsibility, my husband and I closed on our first home together, and we moved ourselves from Brooklyn to New Jersey.
It was… a lot, and at times overwhelmingly hard, but ultimately I found myself invigorated by the stress that accompanied these major milestones. It pushed me to meet new challenges head on and with less trepidation.
As it turns out, this type of positive, motivating stress has a name: It’s called eustress.
What is eustress and why is it good?
A good form of stress might sound strange, but it’s actually vital to our well-being. We experience eustress when embarking on something new and ultimately positive. The prefix “eu” literally means “good,” so it makes sense.
While we often associate stress with negative feelings, in the right setting, it can help us grow and improve our lives. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
Here are a few examples of what might prompt an uptick in eustress:
- a new job (see my example above)
- buying a house (again, look above)
- having a baby
- getting married or starting a new relationship
- starting a fun or challenging new project
- taking a long-awaited vacation
You might be looking at a few of these and going, “Wait a minute. Some of these can come with a lot of negative stress, too!” You’re right. Any major life event isn’t going to be all good stressful or all bad stressful — it’s often a mix.
That said, it’s possible to channel more eustress out of these situations than you might think. We’ll get to how in a moment.
Distress — sometimes it’s unavoidable
Distress is usually what we’re referring to when we say we’re stressed. It’s that negative stress that builds up inside when we’re dealing with something difficult and disheartening, like an illness in the family, the loss of a job, or simply an overwhelming situation.
Sometimes it sneaks up on you, and the feelings it causes are unavoidable. But when stress becomes pervasive due to an ongoing stressful situation, it can have a major effect on your overall health and well-being.
For example, it can leave you feeling distracted, fragile, and unable to cope, which are often precursors to depression and generalized anxiety. Where eustress empowers us to tackle our challenges, distress leaves us feeling powerless against them.
If you’ve been finding yourself weighed down by stress lately, talking out what you’re going through with a trusted friend or a therapist is a good first step toward feeling better.
The more you can harness eustress, the better off you’ll be in the long run
When you’re running on eustress, you’ll probably find that you’re super productive, energized, and focused, which helps work feel almost effortless. Basically, you’ll feel like Wonder Woman (or your favorite superhero) for as long as you can sustain it.
And the more often you can tap into it, the better you’ll feel overall, particularly psychologically because eustress promotes self-efficacy, aka the knowledge that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to.
“It is important to experience eustress regularly, as it improves performance, enhances our ability to focus, feels exciting, contributes to personal drive, and motivates us toward positive personal change,” says Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, a psychologist who specializes in family and relationship therapy.
Of course, as was mentioned above, situations that can spark eustress, like starting a new job or a new relationship, can also cause distress if said situation starts to get overwhelming or another challenging life event pops up in your path.
If that happens, it’s important not to beat yourself up over feeling negative — it doesn’t mean you can’t get back to feeling that positive, motivating eustress again.
But how can I hold onto eustress?
Eustress may seem like this magical unicorn feeling that only touches those fortunate few who can lasso stress into submission anytime they feel it rear its ugly head.
Not so. Anyone who’s ever felt nervous excited about anything has experienced eustress. The key to holding onto it is learning to embrace that feeling and ride the wave of the unknown.
If it’s been a while since you’ve felt anything remotely akin to this, here are some ways you can bring a little eustress back into your life:
1. Get out of your comfort zone
Say you just moved to a new city and you’ve been spending a lot of time inside on the weekends. Instead, push yourself to join a local activity group or have dinner with work colleagues.
It might be scary at first, but you’ll likely end the day feeling better about where you are and more motivated to keep exploring your new neighborhood.
2. Try something new
It’s easy to get stuck in a routine that leaves you feeling bored and uninspired. But if you pick one activity to try a month that you’ve never done before, you’ll not only be broadening your skills, you’ll feel like you can keep pushing your boundaries and end up embarking on adventures you never thought possible.
3. Get physical
The more often you exercise, the more endorphins your body produces, which are major mood boosters. If you’ve been feeling trapped by stress lately, adding in a regular workout to your routine may help you get over the hurdle and into a more positive, productive mind-set.
Don’t be afraid to get ambitious either
When all else fails, it can be tempting to retreat and allow the distress to take over. Instead, resist the urge! To harness that eustress, try setting an ambitious goal. It should be challenging but achievable. It can be something that takes a month to several years.
Whatever your goal, it should inspire you enough that you keep reaching toward it regularly, which should, in turn, get those eustress vibes flowing!
Aim high, and harness that adrenaline to take things to the next level.
Ally Hirschlag is an editor at Weather.com. Previously, she was editor of content collaborations at Upworthy/GOOD and a staff writer before that. Her work has been featured on Allure, Audubon, Huffington Post, Mic, Teen Vogue, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her musings on Twitter and Facebook.