Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Eustress

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What is it, how does it work, and how can we use it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

There is increasingly more stress in everyday modern life[factual?]. However positive psychologists suggest there is a good side to stress, and this may actually lead to beneficial consequences. A common source of stress for people is their work, yet most people also find their work challenging, enjoyable and rewarding[factual?].

How can stress have a positive impact in your life? Evolutionary psychologists argue that without stress we would not perceive threats to our life and would not have evolved into the humans we are today. With the right balance of stress and ability to deal with the stress, the stress will generate positive physiological and psychological responses.

What is eustress?[edit | edit source]

Eustress (pronounced /ju’strɛs/) literally means “good stress”.

Named by Dr Hans Selye in 1974, “eustress” describes the positive experiences of stress, from the more common negative manifestations of stress. More recently, a holistic model of stress was developed by Simmons & Nelson (2007), which captures the positive and negative components of stress.

When an individual faces a stressful event, they either experience distress or eustress. The individual’s perception of both the stressor and their ability (or lack thereof) to overcome the stressor will determine how they experience the stress (Simmons & Nelson, 2007).

General Adaptation Syndrome

Part of Selye's work proposed a model to describe the human body's reaction to stress over time[factual?]:

  1. Alarm stage

This is the body's initial reaction to the stress when it recognises the stressor and activates the 'fight or flight' response. This recognition will cause a release of hormones in the body such as adrenaline and cortisol, which enable the body to perform above normal requirements (think of stories where people report an ability to lift a car off a person in an accident, with an almost super-human strength.

  1. Resistance

After identifying the stressor and undergoing the physical reaction, the body begins to adjust and the stress level is reduced. The body then begins to repair the damage caused during the response, while still remaining on guard to any repeated or continuous stressors with a reduced response to subsequent stressors.

  1. Exhaustion stage

The stressor has been present for an extended period and the body begins to lose its ability to combat the stressor, because the energy is already spent. When stress is prolonged, the body begins to burnout and this leads to implications for health and well-being.

Stress without distress[edit | edit source]

Benson and Allen (1980) examined the physical responses to stress: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased breathing rate, sweating and increased blood flow to muscles. Their research revealed that physical reactions to stress improve the performance of elite athletes and students during an exam, [grammar?] if stress is prolonged it can negatively contribute to poor health issues such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes[factual?].

The presence of positive psychological states after a stressful event indicates the experience of eustress and the presence of negative psychological states indicate the experience of distress (Boswell, Olson-Buchanan, & Le Pine, 2004; Simmons & Nelson, 2001). Eustress is the positive reaction experienced as a result of a stressful event (McGowan, Gardner & Fletcher, 2006). Eustress highlights the activation of productive vital energy and positive appraisal of a stressful experience (Schwarer & Knoll, 2003). Scheck, Kinicki, & Davey (1997) suggest eustress is related positively to work satisfaction, wellbeing and commitment.

Eustress vs. distress[edit | edit source]

Selye differentiated two type of stress in his research in 1974; distress and eustress. Distress is the most common type of stress that people refer to, with negative implications as a result of introducing a stressor. Reports of distress include feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed by a stressor (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Eustress is the positive reaction as a result of introducing a stressor. Reports of eustress include feelings of hope and belief in an individual’s ability to achieve a challenging task (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984: Simmons & Nelson, 2007).

Subjective reactions to the stressful events alter the homeostasis of an individual (Scocco, 2006). The ideal reaction is one that promotes feeling of eustress, such as hope and active engagement and participation in addressing the stressor (Hargrove, Nelson, & Cooper, 2013). Unfortunately the human body doesn't physically differentiate between distress and eustress and experiences the same stress response[factual?].

The distinction between an experience of distress or eustress is determined by an individual’s cognitive perception of the stressor (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Bandura (1986) defined self-efficacy as an individual’s judgment of how well (or poorly) they expect to cope with a situation, given the skills they posses.

Research by Lazarus & Folkman (1984) suggested that distress and eustress are not mutually exclusive and coexist (McGowan, Gardner & Fletcher, 2006). While the majority of research to examine stress uses Likert scale questionnaires, such as the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983), research suggests eustress and distress are separate constructs and not opposite ends of a continuum (Simmons, 2001).

How does eustress work?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1: Yerkes–Dodson curve for a difficult task

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states [grammar?] “increasing stress is beneficial to performance until some optimum level is reached” (Le Fevre, Matheny, & Kolt, 2003). The Yerkes-Dodson model (Figure 1) depicts the optimum balance of stress in a bell curve. When an individual experiences the optimum benefits of eustress, this is called flow. The Yerkes-Dodson Law formula recognises that the optimal stress level for peak performance varies by individual and task (Levinson, 2004). Levinson explains that individual considerations include fatigue, susceptibility to stress, cognitive skills and physical capacity and tasks vary in difficulty, complexity, intensity and duration. The Yerkes-Dodson model demonstrates that a situation with too little stress and arousal fails to stimulate performance and too much stress and arousal will impede performance.

Simmons and Nelson proposed a holistic model of stress - identifying eustress as distinctly separate from distress - using a simple ‘bath’ metaphor to explain the relationship between the two responses: In order to take a bath, a combination of hot and cold water is required. The hot and cold taps control the temperature and water level of the bath. The water level is controlled by the flow of water into the tub and down the drain. The temperature is controlled by the synchronised flow of hot and cold water from both taps. The emphasis of prior research has been to prevent the cold tap (distress) from overfilling the bath and largely ignored the hot tap (eustress), which must be used to create the optimal bath temperature. Recent research is developing to understand how to adjust the flow of hot water into the tub and prevent unnecessary leaks down the drain (increasing and savouring experiences of eustress).

A stressor such as the experience of war would likely cause both distress and eustress in an individual.
Distress would be observed through expression of anxiety surrounding uncertain events and concern for the well-being of others, and eustress would be observed in the form of coping, resourcefulness and efforts to assist others.

Cognitive appraisal[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: Skydiving can produce feelings of eustress or distress in an individual

Cognitive psychologists understand emotions to be adaptive responses that reflect cognitive appraisals of environmental events that impact on an individual's wellbeing (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Developed by Lazarus (1966), the cognitive appraisal model assumes the appraisal of a stressor leads to an individual experiencing stress. The cognitive appraisal model identifies two cognitive outcomes for a stressor; distress or eustress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984):

  • Distress occurs when the stressor is perceived to be a threat and much greater than an individual believes their ability is able to handle.
  • Eustress occurs when the stressor is perceived to be a challenge and within the individual’s ability; either equal to or only slightly greater than their ability to overcome a similar stressor.

Lazarus & Folkman further explains [grammar?] individuals evaluate a situation or event to having personal relevance to their wellbeing and the appraised potential threat or benefit from the situation or event. The individual’s belief in their abilities will affect how they perceive the situation:

  • Primary appraisal - The individual decides if the situation poses a threat or challenge their psychological or physiological well-being.
  • Secondary appraisal - After the immediate primary appraisal, the individual reflects on their ability to cope with the perceived threat or challenge.

Lazarus believed [grammar?] emotions constantly change, as do primary and secondary appraisals[factual?]. The cognitive appraisal model demonstrates that if an individual’s primary appraisal of a stressful situation identifies the situation to be a challenge and follows with a secondary appraisal where they believe the challenge to be within their abilities they will experience a positive emotional event. In the case of stress, this positive response is eustress.

Personality[edit | edit source]

Using the Five Factor Model of personality, research by Saksvik & Hetland (2011) sought to identify if certain personality types are linked to experiencing more or less eustress. Interestingly, their findings suggested that task-focused behaviour increases the eustress experience. Individuals with high scores for conscientiousness, extraversion or agreeableness responded more adaptively to challenging and potentially stressful environments, and experienced eustress more often. Their results indicate [grammar?] individuals with high scores for openness to new experiences often perceived more distress and less eustress in challenging environments.

Le Fevre, Matheny & Kolt (2003) suggested [grammar?] individuals with an internal locus of control are more likely to experience eustress because they internalise the successes in their life and believe they have a stronger control over the events in their lives, thus affecting how they perceive a stressor. High internal locus of control is strongly linked to self-efficacy and the belief in your ability to overcome challenging situations and change overcome difficult circumstances.

If you would like to know more about your personality, you can read more on this personality research page.

Measuring eustress[edit | edit source]

O'Sullivan (2011) and Rodriguez, Kozusznik & Peiro (2013) researched eustress by measuring participants' reported experience of well-being, hope, self-efficacy and life satisfaction:

Individuals with low levels of hope experience less eustress because they have lost sight of their goal and don't believe in their ability to achieve it.

Conversely, individuals with high levels of hope viewed stressors as motivational challenges that encourage them to achieve the goal because they believed in their ability. O'Sullivan's research supports the idea that when hope is combined with stress there is an increase in positive outcomes due to increased use of problem solving ability.

There is a strong connection between hope and self-efficacy. Bandura (1986) defined self-efficacy as the belief in your own capabilities to achieve a goal. Bandura's research proposed that "perceived self-efficacy helps to account for diverse phenomena like changes in coping behaviour, level of physiological stress reactions, self regulation of refractory behaviour, and achievement strivings". A belief in your abilities will increase the likelihood that you will succeed against a challenge.

Life satisfaction
The higher an individuals experience of eustress, the higher they rated their satisfaction with life (and vice versa).

The more eustress an individual experienced, the higher they rated their overall well-being.

Flow[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: Finding Flow

If an individual becomes completely consumed by their dedication to overcome a stressor they are said to be experiencing flow. Flow occurs when the individual experiences the correct balance and combination of control, and arousal (see Figure 3).

Also known as “the zone”, flow is the mental state in which an individual becomes completely immersed by performing a specific activity – they feel energised, focused, motivated (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). While the term flow was coined by Csikszentmihalyi (1991), it has been recognised as a heightened cognitive state by many religions for centuries (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

To live with flow is to live with acceptance and contentment, that which spiritual teachers claim will bring us peace and serenity as we are no longer struggling with or resisting circumstances that are beyond our control (Tolle, 2004). If you'd like to learn more about flow and its strong links to happiness, you can find more information on the Pursuit of Happiness website

Too much eustress?[edit | edit source]

When the experience of eustress has been intensely prolonged or is ongoing, the body will physically experience the same stress reaction as it would to distress: exhaustion (Rodriguez, Kozusznik, & Peiro, 2013). Rodriguez et al. (2013) advise [grammar?] it is important to be cautious when encouraging eustressful experiences, as under certain circumstances challenges can become threatening and over time produce poor health outcomes and even morbidity (Le Fevre, Matheny, & Kolt, 2003).

Too much eustress will push you out of the optimal arousal peak and into the impaired performance phase, as depicted by the Yerkes-Dodson model (Figure 1).

It is best to keep your experience of eustress monitored to ensure you only experience the positive outcomes - everything in moderation is the safest bet.

How can we use eustress?[edit | edit source]

While eustress can be used in many areas of our lives, the area with the most applied research is the workplace. The workplace assesses our behaviour and abilities on a daily basis. If you cannot perform the duties of your job, then there is a misalignment between your capabilities and the challenges of the tasks required by the position (Hargrove, Nelson & Cooper, 2013). Le Fevre et al (2003) propose that in order to make employees more productive while increasing their job satisfaction, managers should maintain and regulate a certain level of stress for employees rather than removing stress completely.

Research by O’Sullivan (2011) revealed [grammar?] eustress is a significant predictor of overall life satisfaction. O’Sullivan’s research also revealed that when eustress is combined with hope and self-efficacy the prediction for life satisfaction is even stronger. They also found that eustress, hope and self-efficacy are highly correlated with each other. A copy of the questionnaire O’Sullivan created for the research can be found below in Table 1. It’s a great way to find out what your relationship with eustress is – the higher your score the more eustress you experience.

Table 1: Eustress pulse check - the higher your score, the more eustress you experience (O'Sullivan, 2011)

Question 0 1 2 3 4 5
How often do you effectively cope with stressful changes that occur in your academic life? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
How often do you deal successfully with irritating academic hassles? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
How often do you feel that stress positively contributes to your ability to handle your academic problems? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
In general, how often do you feel motivated by your stress? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
In general, how often are you able to successfully control the irritations in your academic life? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
In general, how often do you fail at an academic task when under pressure? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
In general, how often are you unable to control the way you spend your time on schoolwork? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
When faced with academic stress, how often do you find that the pressure makes you more productive? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
How often do you feel that you perform better on an assignment when under academic pressure? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always
How often do you feel that stress for an exam has a positive effect on the results of your exam? Never Almost Never Sometimes Often Very often Always

Results from McGowan, Gardner, & Fletcher (2006) revealed [grammar?] emotion-focused coping was associated with high levels of distress and dissatisfaction with the outcomes, while challenge appraisals were related to increased use of task-focused coping strategies and increased experiences of eustress. This means {{grammar}] people who focused on completing tasks, rather than emotions generated by the work (which are largely out of their control) appraised and approached the stress differently, and thus experienced more eustress.

Podsakoff, Le Pine and Le Pine (2007) defined challenge stressors as “demands in the workplace that tend to be appraised as promoting accomplishment of tasks and personal development of the individual” and hindrance stressors as “demands in the workplace that tend to be appraised as barriers or obstacles to accomplishment of tasks and personal development of the individual”. Research by Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling and Boudreau (2000) found that high-level executives identified stressors as either hindrance-related or challenge-related; most reported working to deadlines as challenging and bureaucratic red tape hindering.

Eustress in the workplace[edit | edit source]

How can you use eustress in the workplace?

Take some time to assess what is causing you stress. Is the stress outside of your control (e.g., has your boss asked you to prepare and complete a project before the end of the day?), assess and acknowledge what you're feeling (is it frustration, fear, excitement?), then put the feelings aside and focus on the task (What is the first thing you need to do? Who are the experts you can talk to? Can some of the work be delegated?). As Lazarus and Folkman (1984) propose, when you face a stressful situation, it is not the stressor itself but the way the stressor is managed that impacts on the outcome.

There is no single way to increase your experience of eustress. As McGowan et al (2006) discuss, the ability to use a broad range of coping strategies in a flexible way is paramount. While the difficulty lies with providing appropriate tools to increase the use of coping strategies, types of strategies to consider include:

  • Thinking “What’s in it for me”? and recognising potential positive outcomes of the stressor. This encourages the use of task-focused coping strategies, thereby increasing enjoyment, performance and satisfaction.
  • Increasing resources at your disposal - talk to the experts. This will reduce the level of stress perceived to be your responsibility and shift focus into optimal arousal and performance identified by Yerkes-Dodson.
  • Encouraging the use of task-focused and flexible coping behaviours, this will promote learning applicable to new and multiple situations.

If you want to use eustress in your workplace, click on the relevant green box below for helpful tips on how to use eustress at work:

Managers trying to increase eustress for staff

Managers trying to generate eustress and create a positive workplace for employees to thrive should (Hargrove, Nelson, & Cooper, 2013):

1 Explain the work and reason for the work:

  • Frame the work in positive terms
  • Use positive emotional states – Smile :)
  • Present the work in a pleasant environment
  • Take the time and effort to explain how the work is connected to significant outcomes for the employee, team and company.

2 Set reasonable timeframes on work completion. Timeframes which the employee perceives as challenging yetachievable are more likely to be pursued.

3 Get to know your employees and:

  • Link the work to outcomes important to the employee. This will align company and individual interests (win-win)
  • Assign work that stretches employee capabilities without overwhelming them. This will ensure employees are neither under stimulated nor overextended beyond capabilities.
  • Assign responsibilities that fit the individual.

4 Design and recruit to positions carefully:

  • Job descriptions should accurately reflect job functions
  • Ensure employees have sufficient capabilities to complete job functions
  • Incorporate training and professional development to build skills and knowledge.

5 Demonstrate your own experiences of eustress to employees.

6 Recognise challenges should not overburden employees, as this will lead to burnout. Instead, provide employees with adequate time to recuperate after maintaining peak periods of performance.

7 Celebrate achievements and encourage employees to savour their hard work.

The late Steve Jobs understood these principles very well!!!

Employees trying to increase levels of eustress in the workplace

Individuals trying to increase experiences of eustress in the workplace should (Hargrove, Nelson, & Cooper, 2013):

1 Look for meaning in your work by aligning it with your values and beliefs.

2 Identify how the work can benefit you directly - Is it a stepping stone to your career? Will your efforts be recognised by the boss? Will completing the work get you home early?

3 Be mindful of your feelings and conscious of what you are doing. Mindfulness techniques improve focus, encourages positive affect, manageability and enthusiasm.

4 Know your limitations:

  • Acknowledge when you're tired
  • Alternate between highly demanding tasks and those of lower intensity
  • Take regular breaks.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The experience of stress does not have to be negative. It is possible to increase your experiences of eustress and change the way you think about a stressful event and create more positive outcomes by approaching a situation in a different way. Even if you think your personality is fixed, understanding how your body responds to stress may change how you interpret stress cognitively in the future.

Eustress not only reduces experiences of distress, it actually increases your health, well-being and overall life satisfaction - who wouldn't want to be healthier and happier?

While the focus of historical research has been on the negative effects of stress and how to reduce our exposure to stress overall, an element of stress is beneficial. There is still a lot we don't know about eustress and its manipulation, although the relatively new field of positive psychology is changing this.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 A stressor is:

something causing positive changes in attitude
factors in life leading to increased self-efficacy
the calming effect experienced when you acknowledge stress
a change or challenge forcing a person to adapt or change

2 What is the negative response to a stressor?

an unnecessary thing for cats
none of the above

3 What does the Yerkes-Dodson Model demonstrate?

there is no such thing as too much stress, so long as you achieve a task
when levels of stress increase you see a positive performance result, unless stress levels increase too much and then performance drops
when levels of stress reduce, levels of performance increase
none of the above

4 What is it called when you're challenged positively to achieve a goal?

unique stress

5 The interpretation of a stressor determining if the event will cause distress or eustress, is called:


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bandura, A., & Cervone, D. (1986). Differential engagement of self-reactive influences in cognitive motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 38, 92-113

Benson, H., Allen, R.L., 1980. How much stress is too much? Harvard Business Review, 58, 86-92.

Cavanaugh, M. A., Boswell, W. R., Roehling, M. V., & Boudreau, J. W. (2000). An empirical examination of self-reported work stress among US managers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(1), 65.

Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24(4), 385-396.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1st. Harper Perennial ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Hargrove, M. B.; Nelson, D. L.; Cooper, C. L. (2013). "Generating eustress by challenging employees: Helping people savor their work.". Organizational Dynamics 42: 61–69. doi: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2012.12.008.

Levinson, M. H. (2004). Managing organizational stress through general semantics. ETC: A Review Of General Semantics, 61(2), 245-253.

Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological Stress and the Coping Process. New York: McGraw Hill.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Le Fevre, M., Matheny, J., & Kolt, G. S. (2003). Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(7), 726-744. doi:10.1108/02683940310502412

McGowan, J., Gardner, D., & Fletcher, R. (2006). Positive and Negative Affective Outcomes of Occupational Stress. New Zealand Journal Of Psychology, 35(2), 92-98.

O'Sullivan, G. (2011). The relationship between hope, eustress, self-efficacy, and life satisfaction among undergraduates. Social Indicators Research, 101(1), 155-172. doi:10.1007/s11205-010-9662-z

Podsakoff, N. P., LePine, J. A., & LePine, M. A. (2007). Differential challenge stressor-hindrance stressor relationships with job attitudes, turnover intentions, turnover, and withdrawal behavior: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), 438-454. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.92.2.438

Rodriguez, I., Kozusznik, M. W., & Peiro, J. M. (2013). Development and validation of the Valencia Eustress-Distress Appraisal Scale. International Journal Of Stress Management, 20(4), 279-308. doi:10.1037/a0034330

Saksvik, I. B., & Hetland, H. (2011). The role of personality in stress perception across different vocational types. Journal Of Employment Counseling, 48(1), 3-16.

Scheck, C. L., Kinicki, A. J., & Davy, J. A. (1997). Testing the mediating processes between work stressors and subjective well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 50(1), 96-123. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1996.1540

Schwarzer, R., & Knoll, N. (2003). Positive coping: Mastering demands and searching for meaning. In Lopez, S. J, & Snyder, C. R., Handbook of positive psychological assessments. A handbook of models and measures (pp. 393-409). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10612-025

Scocco, P. G. (2006). Nursing home institutionalization: a source of eustress or distress for the elderly?. International Journal Of Geriatric Psychiatry, 21(3), 281-287.

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

Simmons, B.L., & Nelson, D.L. (2001). Eustress at work: The relationship between hope and health in hospital nurses. Health Care Management Review, 26, 7-18.

Simmons, B. L., & Nelson, D. L. (2007). Eustress at work: Extending the holistic model of stress. In D. L. Nelson, D.L. & Cooper, C.L., Positive organizational behavior: Accentuating the positive at work (pp. 40-53). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Tolle, E., (2004). The Power of Now; a guide to spiritual enlightenment, Sydney, Hachette Australia

External links[edit | edit source]


Pursuit of happiness

How to manage stress:

Stress management interventions

Stress management help guide


Personality research