Feb 062012

I argue stressing yourself out can be good for you in this paper. I wrote it for my Positive Psychology class. Positive Psychology is the study of how to improve lives of everyone including the mentally ill rather than just fix the broken and ill minds that the rest of psychology is focused on. This paper was obviously inspired by my interest in personal development. Tim Ferriss was the first person to introduce me to the idea of eustress vs distress but that reference doesn’t work in an academic paper, so I’m crediting him here. Enjoy! You can contact me and lemme know what you think!

Distress vs. Eustress

The story of stress starts with a researcher who was extraordinarily bad at handling rats. Stress as a concept was imported from physics by Walter Cannon into physiology, though the landmark experiments were done by the bad rat-handler, Hans Selye. Selye ran an experiment in which he attempted to inject rats daily with an ovarian extract to determine its function. Unfortunately, he would often try to inject the rats, miss, drop them, spend half the morning chasing the rats around the room, flailing with a broom to get them out from behind a sink, and so on. After a few months of this, the rats had peptic ulcers, greatly enlarged adrenal glands and shrunken immune tissues. Intrigued, he ran another experiment that injected a control group with saline with the same level of finesse. At the end of the experiment, the control group had similar peptic ulcers and other signs of stress. Thus, he discovered some of the effects of prolonged stress. (Selye, 1982).

Selye was also the first person to differentiate stress into eustress and distress (Selye, 1975). Distress is what we are familiar with under the term “stress”, however eustress is a different beast altogether. Eustress is positive stress. They both cause activation of the sympathetic nervous system which causes the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to go up and the body to become ready for fight or flight (though the situation is more complicated than that). Subjectively, distress is perceived as anxiety-producing while eustress is often perceived as exciting. This difference exists despite the fact that the physiological systems are the same, though the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is often lower in eustress than distress for the same level of stressor (Sapolsky, 2004).

Physiologists and endocrinologists have done an extraordinary job of discovering the benefits of eustress and the negatives of distress. Eustress such as excersize, sex, etc, helps increase functioning, prolongs life, increases life satisfaction and is often associated with “being challenged”. Prolonged distress, however, has been linked to a lot of negative consequences, including cardiovascular and heart disease (stressed monkeys had heart attacks, even the ones on low-fat diets), reduced immune function and just feeling terrible all the time (Sapolsky, 2004). However, what is a distressing event or activity and what is a eustressing one? Why will running every day for an hour for ten years increase life span while running from a bear for an hour every day will greatly decrease life span? Why is it that something one person finds distressing (e.g. a roller coaster ride) another person is willing to pay for?

The answer lies in what triggers the stress response. It is in the mind. Since physiologists are averse to anything as touchy-feely as the mind, the role of determining stress triggers falls to psychology. There are some interesting correlates. Some landmark studies have been about the difference between eustress and distress without being named as being about it. Such as the classic Schachter-Singer experiment (Schachter & Singer, 1962) and the “HighBridge” experiment (Dutton & Aron, 1974). What these studies indicated was that there is a dynamic relationship between the physiological response and the emotional-cognitive one, where one may influence the other and feedback to influence the first. This helps provide the basis for the success of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapies involving the technique of reframing. It is thus possible to reframe anxiety and nervousness to become excitement and readiness for action, and distress into eustress (in certain circumstances). A different stress response is activated (one with more glucocorticoids) when a creature has fallen into “learned helplessness” and more of the prolonged negative effects of stress come from glucocorticoid exposure (see Sapolsky, 2004 for review).

Distress into Eustress

A lot of psychological research (and positive psychological research) is focused on how people cope with distress. Concepts such as resilience, trauma-coping, and others are about distress and successfully coping with it without falling into depression or learned helplessness. However, what if events were not interpreted as being distressing but rather eustressing in the first place? What if people pursued positive eustress or even slight distress voluntarily? The positive benefits of pursuing eustress are rarely mentioned by that name. For example, the extensive literature on goal-setting is about eustress—about setting goals that push us out of our comfort zones, but the two terms are rarely mentioned in conjunction with each other (Sheldon, Kasser, Smith & Share, 2002). What if someone decided voluntarily to place themselves in stressful situations and learned to cope with each successively difficult challenge, such as how video game levels are structured? We will return to this question soon.

How does one produce psychological eustress and its benefits? Inspiration to answer this question on this comes from two fronts: the study of myths and Russian psychology. Russian psychology starts with the axiomatic assumption that, anxiety is the basic state of creatures and we learn to be calm, whereas Western psychology starts with the assumption that calmness is the fundamental state and we learn to be afraid or anxious. The Russian view is supported by the simple fact that the amygdala, which generates anxiety, is always on but inhibited (Peterson, 1999).

Fair enough, but what causes anxiety? Anxiety and the stress-response is a sort of “catch-all” phenomena that seems to occur often in cases of uncertainty, and especially uncertainty about negative events (uncertainty about positive events is often anticipation and excitement—such as a lottery ticket). The class of things or situations or states or consequences that generate anxiety might be referred to as “chaos”, which is a central theme in many myths. Chaos refers to change, the generative principle that creates, the uncertain, the unknown, and the multi-faceted. Many of the most popular myths are about the interplay between chaos, order, and the thing that mediates between the two (often referred to as the hero—or the virtual governor in dynamical systems theory). “Order” is the state or situation where calmness reigns. “Chaos” and “order” map easily onto the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system respectively, which are setup in an opponent processing manner much like order and chaos.

Well, what does the hero do in myths? The hero decides to go out to face chaos voluntarily and face the things that cause the hero anxiety and fear. However, the hero cannot go and face the greatest anxiety-provoking thing out there immediately and must instead fight lesser monsters to work up to fighting and defeating the greatest monster of them all. Sometimes the hero will foolishly attempt to attack the strongest monster immediately, but run away when the challenge appears too great, but returns to fight eventually. This is often referred to as a “first flight of the hero”.

There are a few key things about this archetypal story. The first is that this process must be engaged in voluntarily. The second is this has to be done in stages, where the first action is just outside the comfort zone of the hero and after successfully confronting the first monster, the hero’s comfort zone expands and can now comfortably face monsters of the same difficulty. This is, in some way, boring, so the hero must next fight a monster that was previously too far out of his comfort zone but after the first monster, is just outside the new, expanded comfort zone. Why else do sequels to movies always up the stakes, that is, first the hero saves theUnited States, and then the world? (Peterson, 1999)

We know these two key things to be true from treatment of phobias using exposure therapy. If you take someone with a fear of elevators and throw them into an elevator, they will likely have a nervous breakdown. However, if they decide they want to get over this fear and voluntarily face chaos, then they are much more likely to overcome the phobia. Thus, exposing yourself to what you fear voluntarily is important for eustress and also growth as a person. Another stream of research which provides validity for this idea of voluntary exposure to chaos comes from the work of James Pennebaker (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986), which involves facing trauma and converting it to order by expressing it in words. This has shown great effectiveness in terms of increasing both physical and mental health.

It appears that human beings may even be built to seek a certain amount of chaos in the form of novelty. A bit of chaos or change is interesting and too much order is boring. It appears that physiologically, excitement and anxiety or nervousness seem to be very similar. What is the difference between the two? It appears that the difference arises from how the situation is assessed. Schachter & Singer (1962)’s experiment indicates this, as do the challenge/threat appraisal experiments (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey & Leitten, 1993).

This is where this discussion parts ways with Richard Lazarus (1984) and most modern psychology textbooks. Lazarus envisioned eustress and distress being along the same dimension, where a little bit of stress is perceived as beneficial and more than that point is perceived as distressing. This is very similar to the Yerkes–Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). However, this is a simplistic understanding of the issue in which other factors are important for perceiving a situation or activity as exciting or distressing and at least one of them is cognitive appraisal of the situation as demonstrated by the challenge/threat appraisal experiments (Tomakaa, Blascovicha, Kelseyb & Leitten, 1993). Personality factors are also important which includes a personal tolerance for uncertainty and chaos (often measured by sensation-seeking, risk-seeking, tolerance of ambiguity or tolerance of uncertainty scales). This personal tolerance is likely based on two things: a person’s optimal ratio of certainty to uncertainty (order to chaos) in their life, and the current balance of certainty to uncertainty in their life. Too much certainty (order) and life becomes boring and stale without much growth, so a bit of uncertainty brings excitement back into life. Too much uncertainty (chaos) and life becomes stressful and overwhelming. Chaos carries an additional problem: it is not only the unknown but also that which is without pattern and predictability. As pattern seeking machines, most creatures abhor being in situations without any predictability, where cause-effect relations are inconsistent (a good way to destroy a child is to punish and reward them unpredictably) and no stories can be made. In extreme cases, too much uncertainty and inability to discern any patterns in an environment can lead to “experimental neurosis” or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is often treated through exposure therapy (Rothbaum & Schwartz, 2002).

So, we have a new prescription: a life well-lived involves eustress and voluntarily exposing ourselves to small amounts of distress and anxiety over time. Colloquially this referred to as “challenging yourself” or “pushing yourself out of your comfort zone”. By exposing oneself to one level of difficulty of trauma and learning to cope, perhaps in the future, an unintentional trauma of the same difficulty will be dealt with more effectively. Thus, a lifestyle of exposing oneself to controlled doses of ever increasing stress (though it is not necessarily increasing from a personal perspective) may have a preventative role towards future trauma by increasing one’s coping resources.

Suffering as transformative is an ancient idea as summed up beautifully by Tedeschi & Calhoun (2004):

The general understanding that suffering and distress can be possible sources of positive change is thousands of years old. For example, some of the early ideas and writings  of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and early Christians, as well as some of the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam contain elements of the potentially transformative power of suffering. A major theme of Christian traditions, for example, are the narratives about the transformative effect of the execution of Jesus. His suffering is viewed as having the power to transform others. In some Islamic traditions, suffering is seen as instrumental to the purposes of Allah. A central theme of much philosophical inquiry, and the work of novelists, dramatists, and poets, has included attempts to understand and discover the meaning of human suffering.

            Doing something simply because it is challenging or fear-inducing or requires courage is valid for doing it for its own sake, or for the sake of increasing courage. If you take someone through a “why?” activity whereby you ask them repeatedly their reason for doing something such as attending a class, you often arrive at the final “to be happy” answer in the West. Happiness is seen as a fundamental axiom of living life which is rested upon and does not (or cannot) be justified further. Perhaps to seek challenge, courage and excitement should be another such axiom.


Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping Springer Publishing Company.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief Psychology Press.

Rothbaum, B. O., & Schwartz, A. C. (2002). Exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 56(1), 59-75.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers Owl Books.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. E. (2000). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Emotions in Social Psychology: Essential Readings, 76

Selye, H. (1975). Confusion and controversy in the stress field. Journal of Human Stress, 1(2), 37-44.

Sheldon, K. M., Kasser, T., Smith, K., & Share, T. (2002). Personal goals and psychological growth:  Testing an intervention to enhance goal attainment and personality integration. Journal of Personality, 70(1), 5-31.

Selye, H. (1982). History and present status of the stress concept. Handbook of Stress: Theoretical and Clinical Aspects, , 7-17.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth:  Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 248-260.

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459-482.


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