Distress vs. Eustress: Positive & Negative Stress Explained

Published on: 29 Aug 2023
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
Distress vs. Eustress

Stress is a natural response to increased pressure in our lives due to a change in our environment or a threat. It’s normal, and even healthy in some cases. The stress response stems from primal survival skills we once needed, most often expressed through the fight or flight response that’s naturally triggered whenever the brain senses danger. 

There are several different types of stress, depending on your circumstances and on whether it is good stress vs bad stress. Yes, there is such a thing as good, positive stress. It’s known as “eustress,” and it helps with things like motivation and focus.

On the flip side, “distress” is what most people think of when the topic of stress comes up. Distress is the stereotypical anxiety and worry we associate with stressful times. 

Continue reading to learn more about what is the difference between eustress and distress, including what each means and how to manage them.

The Two Faces of Stress: Distress and Eustress

It’s impossible to avoid stress in your life altogether, but understanding the difference between eustress and distress and why and when you might be feeling either will help you learn to manage stress so it’s not negatively impacting your life. 

What is distress? Defining negative stress

While you probably hear the word “stress” almost daily, most of the time, the word that should really be used is distress.

Distress is the negative form of stress. It’s most often uncomfortable, and when not managed appropriately, it can destroy relationships and mental well-being. Studies show that stress can have a negative effect on the human nervous system. Unfortunately, distress is a natural and automatic reaction when sensing a physical or emotional threat or fear.

“Distress is anything that negatively impacts you, whether emotionally or physically. While we can certainly feel distressed due to grief and loss, it could also be something as simple as a breakup or as impactful as a job loss or medical event. Often, the source is easy to identify, but it can also accumulate over time.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW 

What are examples of distress?

Distress comes from a stressor reaction to negative experiences in life. Common sources of distress can include:

  • Family stress
  • Divorce
  • Being bullied
  • A relationship breaking up
  • Conflict
  • Missing deadlines
  • Losing a spouse, family member, or friend
  • Financial struggles
  • Natural disasters
  • War
  • Violence
  • Being assaulted or abused
  • Being sued
  • Severe or sudden health problems
  • Job worries

What is eustress? Defining positive stress

Eustress, by contrast, is the positive form of stress that isn’t necessarily bad. Stress can come in the form of new opportunities that can open doors and change your life. Challenges you can successfully overcome result in a positive state of mind and benefit your life.

“Not all stress is bad. At times, eustress or productive stress can be encouraging, motivating, or even exhilarating and fun. Sometimes, when the adrenaline gets ramped up, it can signal excitement, joy, and positivity, like after a roller coaster ride or accomplishing a well-prepared presentation where reflection might indicate a positive and satisfying outcome.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

What are examples of eustress?

There are countless examples of positive stress we’ll face throughout our life. Eustress might result from experiences like:

  • Starting a new job
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Buying your first home
  • Getting a promotion at work
  • Starting a business
  • Being rewarded for accomplishments
  • Traveling or visiting new places
  • Making new friends

Distress vs. Eustress: How Do They Differ?

While both are essentially stress, eustress and distress occur for different reasons. Any time our stress response is triggered, our brain and body try to react in a way that’ll bring us back to an even state of mind, both physically and mentally. The single most significant difference between distress and eustress stems from how we react to something. 

Because distress is negative, our reaction will be adverse. Eustress is a positive experience; thus, we typically have a more pleasant reaction to it. 

“Distress doesn’t typically offer a productive outcome or a feeling of accomplishment as with eustress. Typically, distress provokes symptoms of feeling poorly both physically and emotionally.”  

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

How distress and eustress affect us differently

Our natural reaction to distress or eustress experiences will widely vary. For example: 

  • Distress can make you tired and weary, whereas eustress can energize you. 
  • Distress can cause negative emotions and thought patterns, but eustress can boost mood.
  • Distress often causes anxiety, whereas eustress can build confidence and excitement.
  • Distress can result in depression or other mental health conditions, but eustress tends to improve mental well-being.
  • Distress can be paralyzing and overwhelming; eustress can energize you to take action and be productive.

The fine line between distress and eustress

Despite obvious differences between distress vs. eustress, the two have some similarities. Both types of stress can:

  • Release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
  • Force us to step outside the place in our life where we’re most comfortable.
  • Result in mental and physical changes.
  • Trigger the fight or flight stress response.

Managing Distress and Harnessing Eustress

While there’s no possible way to entirely eliminate distress from your life, there are stress management techniques you can use to lessen the negative impact it has. Likewise, you can learn to harness eustress to get as many benefits as possible.

Techniques for reducing distress

Some tips for reducing the negative outcome of distress include:

  • Try to view a stressful situation as something with potential for growth or another positive outcome.
  • Rather than see it as a negative, try viewing whatever is causing your stress as a possibility.
  • Change your mindset from looking at something as stressful to seeing it as challenging.

Strategies for maximizing the benefits of eustress

To maximize the benefits of eustress, you can:

  • Keep a gratitude journal where you track things you’re grateful for.
  • Focus on positivity.
  • Practice self care, like meditation for stress or working out, so you can manage stress in healthier ways.

Embracing the Dual Nature of Stress with Talkspace

You can’t avoid stress, but you can learn how to manage it. Talkspace is an excellent resource if you need help or guidance on understanding what is the difference between eustress and distress. 

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes getting help convenient, accessible, and affordable — all from the comfort of your home. With stress therapy, you can learn how to manage your stress constructively, so it isn’t hindering you from getting the most out of life. 

Reach out to Talkspace today to learn more about how you can learn to manage your stress in a positive and healthy way.


  1. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. THE IMPACT OF STRESS ON BODY FUNCTION: A REVIEW. EXCLI J. 16:1057-1072. doi:doi: 10.17179/excli2017-480. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/. Accessed June 3, 2023. 

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