Eustress vs. Distress


Since the turn of the 20th century, this word has become more and more prevalent in the English lexicon ( and has become something of a dirty buzzword. From a very young age we are made aware of the negative effects stress can have on our physical and mental health. Stress is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, while simultaneously being an inevitable part of the human experience.

So if we cannot avoid stress, maybe we should rethink our approach to identifying and handling stress. This is where eustress comes in. Eustress is stress that is actually beneficial to our health and wellbeing. It is the opposite of distress, which describes stressors that are harmful to your overall wellness. 

While it may seem ironic that any kind of stress can be beneficial, eustress plays an important role in cultivating a strong sense of long-term fulfillment, meaning, discipline, and resilience in your daily lives. Over time, eustress ends up becoming more beneficial than many of the common remedies that our society uses to combat stressors such as: pharmaceuticals, tobacco, etc. 

While the latter solutions provide short-term relief from stress and anxiety, they lead to long-term problems. It is futile to escape stress, but we can learn to be more resilient by incorporating eustress into our routines. So how can we incorporate a eustress practice into our lives? Chances are you have already heard of a few of these examples:


1. Ice Baths / Sauna


There have been countless studies showing the physiological benefits of cold plunges and saunas. In addition to being a healthy habit for your body, they create a mental fortitude that is hard to replicate in such a controlled environment. Some experts even suggest that when you are procrastinating, putting off various tasks, or are worried about confronting something, hitting the ice bath is a very effective way to hype yourself up to tackle whatever the world throws at you. The logic behind this is that your mind and body resent these conditions so much that suddenly whatever challenges stand before you, begin to seem trivial. When you are submerged in ~30-50 degree water or 120 degree heat, suddenly that email you have been putting off or that conversation you have been dreading doesn’t seem so bad. 

It is recommended to aim for 11 minutes in the ice bath and 60 minutes in the sauna per week, These are not individual 11 and 60 minute sessions. These are accumulated throughout the week so if you can only get in the sauna for five minutes one day, you can still achieve comparable results by compensating for that lost time the following day.

For men: Do note that saunas can reduce sperm counts, and other metrics regarding reproductive health. If you are trying to conceive, it is recommended to avoid the sauna in the weeks prior.


2. Exercise


While to me this is the most difficult eustress to incorporate into our daily lives, it is probably the most important form. Exercise will initially be uncomfortable and the worst part is that it may take months or even years to really notice the benefits of this routine. The mental benefits will appear much sooner, but it’s important to maintain your discipline when things do get better. A trap that I have fallen into consistently: I feel like I’m at rock-bottom and that pushes me to go to the gym. I go to the gym often enough where the quality of my mental health and life have improved so I am no longer in this dark place. I then use this newfound peace in my life as a rationalization that I don’t need to work out. Ie, if I was working out because I was depressed, if I am no longer depressed, there is no need to workout.

A trainer mentioned in the book, Atomic Habits, that a big obstacle in weightlifting consistently is just getting through the boredom of the routine. You enter the gym knowing that you are going to put your body and mind in an uncomfortable position. Finding a way to quiet this mind and shut down that hedonist voice is vital. (sidebar: when you have a voice in your mind telling you to stop, what is the origin of the voice that tells you to keep going? How can there be two conflicting voices in your head at the same time? Which is right and wrong? Crazy stuff dude). 


3. Dopamine Breaks

Dopamine is responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. In our modern society, we are often exposed to a dopamine overload. As the saying goes: what comes up, must come down. Scrolling on social media, eating junk food, gambling, etc. spikes our dopamine levels and makes us feel a euphoric rush, but this often leads to a crash and a depressing feeling afterwards. Taking a short break from dopamine or reducing activities related to high spikes in dopamine builds discipline, but also gives your dopamine levels time to regulate itself back to a sustainable level. Maybe set aside a night or two a week to unplug from technology and engage in activities that create a slow release of dopamine, rather than a tsunami. Examples include going on a walk, reading a book, or eating healthy foods like apples, almonds, etc.


I am not a medical expert, and everybody’s anatomy is different so please do your own research before heeding this advice. What I can say with confidence is that in order to have the fortitude to face challenges and obstacles, we need a certain level of stressors in our lives. It is vital that we identify which stressors are distress and which stressors are eustress. Gravitate towards the eustress. Finding ways to combat and avoid distress is a topic for another time…

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