Negative stress definition

Positive & Negative Types of Stress

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Published: November 6, 2020 Updated: October 24, 2022

Published: 11/06/2020 Updated: 10/24/2022

Most people view stress as negative and harmful, but in some situations, stress can be adaptive and helpful. Stress is a normal physiological and psychological response people develop in response to their circumstances. Eustress is a word used to describe stress that is positive, motivating, and enhances functioning while distress refers to bad and overwhelming stress that impairs functioning.

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What Is Stress?

Stress is a normal response to “stressors,” or internal and external circumstances that are difficult, upsetting, or scary. Internal stressors include distressing thoughts or memories, physical sensations like pain or discomfort, and also emotions like sadness or anger. External stressors include any concerning event, situation or circumstance that has the potential to negatively impact a person or something they care about.

When a person encounters a stressor, a chain reaction is set into motion in the brain and nervous system. This chain reaction begins in the brain when a problem or potential threat is identified, which cues the sympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, stress hormones and chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. This results in the stress response (also called fight or flight) and involves a quickening of the heart rate and breath, feelings of restless energy and increased mental alertness.

When stress happens in response to actual problems or threats, it can be helpful in providing energy, motivation and focus needed to confront or solve the problem. This kind of stress is called eustress. When the stress response happens too often or in response to unimportant or uncontrollable circumstances, it is more likely to be experienced as distress, which can have negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health.2

What Is Eustress?

Eustress is a relatively new concept that describes a type of stress that is positive, helpful, and motivating. Unlike distress, eustress motivates people to work hard, improve their performance, and reach their goals, even in the face of challenges.6 In the body and brain, both eustress and distress involve the activation of the fight or flight response.

The difference is that in eustress, the energy provided is proportionate to what is needed in the situation while in distress, the energy is excessive or unusable. Whether a person experiences distress or eustress in a situation mainly depends on their perception of themselves and the stressor. When a person feels confident in their ability to overcome the stressor, they are more likely to experience positive stress.3,4,6 This positive assessment of the stressor helps them channel the energy provided by the fight or flight response in ways that help them work towards a solution.

What Is Distress?

Distress describes the negative kind of stress that most people associate with feeling “stressed out”. Distress tends to cause people to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and to experience physical and psychological symptoms like headaches, tension, insomnia, inattentiveness or irritability. Frequent, intense or chronic stress is toxic to the body and brain and is linked to a number of physical and mental illnesses, as well as impairing a person’s ability to function.2

The difference in eustress and distress has to do with the stressor(s) that triggered the response and the way the person assesses these. Distress is caused when a person assumes the stressor or stressors are not within their control or ability to fix or change. People who experience distress tend to feel overwhelmed and helpless and because they haven’t found an actionable solution, tend to revert to worrying and other unproductive responses.3,4,6

While the physiological signs of eustress and distress can be almost identical (i.e. increased heart rate, breathing and energy), the psychological signs of good and bad stress are different. Some of the differences between eustress and distress are displayed in the table below:2,3,4,6

Whether or not a person experiences good or bad stress when they encounter a stressor depends on a number of individual and situational factors.

Certain factors are more closely associated with eustress while others are associated with distress:2,3,4,6

Causes of Eustress & Distress

There are numerous situations and circumstances that can cause stress. Situations that cause stress could be interpreted positively and lead to eustress or they could be interpreted negatively and lead to distress.

According to data from 2014 and 2017, some of the most common sources of stress reported by Americans included:1

  • Money
  • Work stress
  • Political climate
  • Future of the nation
  • Violence or crime
  • Media overload
  • Physical health or illness
  • Relationship conflicts or loneliness
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Poor nutrition

The stressors reported above were likely listed as causes of distress, instead of as eustress. While some of the above stressors could cause eustress, stress coming from economic or social disadvantage or chronic health issues are more likely to lead to negative stress. Eustress is more likely to be experienced in more temporary situations, before planned transitions, or when a person has power to influence or direct the outcome they want.2,3,4,6

Some examples of causes of eustress include:

  • A promotion at work
  • An upcoming event that a person is hosting
  • Performing in a concert
  • Having a baby
  • Moving to a new city

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Impacts of Eustress & Distress

Eustress and distress can both have unique impacts on a person and their functioning. Typically, the impacts of eustress are generally experienced positively, and include things like increased motivation, focus, and energy that can be channeled towards a certain task or problem. Distress, on the other hand, tends to have more negative impacts on a person’s mood, health, and functioning.

When distress is chronic and recurring in nature, the increased cortisol levels can result in a number of physical and psychological illnesses and issues, including:1,2

  • Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • Physical pain or discomfort (i.e. headaches, stomach problems)
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Increased heart rate, respiration and blood pressure
  • Trouble focusing, concentrating, or remembering things
  • Feeling keyed up, on-edge or restless
  • Feeling exhausted or emotionally drained
  • Having racing or repeating intrusive thoughts
  • Not feeling present or engaged in activities and tasks
  • Irritability or lowered frustration tolerance
  • Heightened anxiety

The longer distress lasts, the more serious the impacts and impairments become. Prolonged exposure to negative stress is linked to:1,2

  • Impaired functioning in one or more area of life
  • Increased risk for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression
  • Increased risk for substance use disorders
  • Increased risk for chronic illnesses, heart disease and cancer
  • Increased mortality

Everyone will sometimes experience distress in response to situations that are upsetting or overwhelming, making total prevention an unrealistic goal. Still, it is possible to guard against the negative effects of distress when it is unavoidable, and also to use strategies that sometimes can transform distress into eustress.

The following tips and strategies can be helpful in protecting against and preventing distress:2,3,4,5,6,7

1. Focus on the Aspects of the Situation That are Within Your Control

Distress is experienced when a person believes a stressor exceeds their abilities to cope, which is more likely to happen when people are focused on aspects of a situation that are beyond their control. Sometimes the only aspect of a situation that is within your control is the way you respond to it, but other times there are actionable steps that could help solve the problem or reduce the stress.

2. Find Meaning in Difficult and Stressful Situations

While it might be hard to find meaning in painful or difficult situations, people who do are more likely to experience eustress rather than distress. Finding meaning within pain doesn’t mean that a person is grateful for the experience, but it does demonstrate resourcefulness, resilience and optimism. Meaning could come in the form of an insight about yourself or your situation, increased clarity about what matters most, or feeling more confident in your ability to overcome adversity. Sometimes, meaning could come in the form of a new friendship, skill, or opportunity.

3. Identify Actionable Steps That can Improve the Situation or Prevent a bad Outcome

Distress is experienced when a person feels helpless and unable to do anything that could resolve the stress or prevent a bad outcome. While there are some situations where this is true, there are many more where there is at least one actionable step a person can take to promote the outcome they want. Doing something in the face of stress feels better than doing nothing. Even if your actions do not produce the desired outcome, you will probably feel better about yourself for making the effort.

4. Address Root Causes of Stress Within Your Life

Stress occurs because there is something within you or your life that is difficult, painful or taxing. The root cause of stress could be coming from something that is wrong, missing, or difficult in your life. This could be a relationship, a job, an obligation, or even a destructive habit you have developed. When the root cause of stress is coming from your life or your choices, a true solution will require you to confront this issue and actively work to change it, improve it, or distance yourself from it.

5. Practice Self-Compassion

Under stress, many people revert to self-criticism, blaming themselves for things they did or did not do in the past and setting unrealistic expectations for themselves in the future. While you might think that your inner critic helps to motivate you and improve your performance, research suggests the opposite. When compared to self-criticism, self-compassion has been proven to be more motivating, helpful, and more likely to lead to successful outcomes. Even better… not only do self-compassionate people fail less, they also are more likely to get back up and keep trying after they fail instead of giving up.5

6. Use Mindfulness to Get Out of Your Head

Most people spend a lot of time in their head either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Because you cannot change the past or predict the future, these mental efforts are unproductive, and also provide food for the bad kind of stress. When you catch yourself in these mental thought loops, break free by focusing your full attention on something in the present. This could be your breath, your body, or your surroundings. Be patient with yourself as you begin this practice, and work to gently bring your attention back to the present each time it wanders back to the unhelpful thoughts and stories.

7. Reach Out to Your Support System & Ask for Help

While you may have the urge to withdraw from people during times of stress or hardship, isolation and withdrawal is known to amplify stress and the toxic effects it has on a person’s physical and mental health. Make a point to reach out to the people you can trust, tell them what you are going through, and ask for the help and support you need. Not only does this provide you with support, it also helps to strengthen relationships.

8. Use Relaxation Techniques to Help You Regulate Stress in the Moment

Certain relaxation techniques can interrupt the physiological stress response and promote relaxation. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided meditations are all helpful relaxation techniques. Yoga and Tai Chi are great options for people who find sitting practices difficult.

9. Try EFT Tapping

Emotional Freedom Technique (also called EFT) is a revolutionary way to regulate emotions and reduce stress. EFT is practiced by systematically tapping the fingers on different meridians (energy points) in the body while saying affirmations aloud. While it might seem strange, there is ample research to suggest that this technique is highly effective, and it can be done in just 10 or 15 minutes.

10. Increase Physical Activity to Create an Outlet for Stress

Physical exercise is a proven stress reliever and helps to rebalance hormones and chemicals released when the body’s stress response is activated. Make physical exercise a priority, especially during times of high stress. Devoting time to exercise will help to sharpen your mind, calm your nerves and improve your performance, which will all be helpful during times of high stress.

When to Seek Help for Stress & Distress

Sometimes, distress becomes intense or chronic and it is necessary to seek professional help from a counselor or other professional.

Some of the signs that may indicate the need for professional help include:

  • Feeling anxious, overwhelmed or stressed most days for 2 weeks or longer
  • Stress that interrupts your ability to eat or sleep or which makes you feel physically ill
  • Being unable to concentrate, focus, and function normally because of high levels of stress
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or from reality, hazy or zoned out
  • Persistent sadness, fatigue or low motivation that interrupts your normal routine
  • Thoughts of death, wanting to die, or considering suicide
  • Over-reliance on drugs, alcohol, or other harmful habits to cope with stress

Getting Help for Stress

If you notice one or more of the above signs, it is important to reach out for professional help. Often, stress and its impacts on your physical and mental health can be interrupted, reduced and even reversed with treatment. You can begin your search for treatment in any one of the following ways:

  • Conducting a google search or using an online therapist directory to find licensed counselors (for therapy) or psychiatrists (for medication options) near you and calling a few to find one that is a good fit for your needs.
  • Contacting your insurance company to identify a list of in-network counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists and following up with a few to find one that is a good fit for your needs.
  • Going through your employer’s employee assistance program (EAP) to find out more about mental wellness benefits, which may include a certain number of free counseling sessions.
  • Finding a local support group for people who are struggling with similar problems like divorce, parenting issues, chronic illness or grief. There are also more general mental health support groups for people struggling with chronic stress or other challenges.

Additional Resources

Education is just the first step on our path to improved mental health and emotional wellness. To help our readers take the next step in their journey, Choosing Therapy has partnered with leaders in mental health and wellness. Choosing Therapy may be compensated for referrals by the companies mentioned below.

BetterHelp (Online Therapy) – BetterHelp has over 20,000 licensed therapists who provide convenient and affordable online therapy. BetterHelp starts at $60 per week. Complete a brief questionnaire and get matched with the right therapist for you. Get Started – Receive help for anxiety. The standard plan includes a weekly 45 minute video session, unlimited text messaging between sessions, and self-guided activities like journaling. Recently, they added Yoga videos. Get Started

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For Further Reading

Those who want to learn more about stress, its impacts, and prevention techniques can learn more at the following sites:

  • Mental Health America: This site has a number of online screening tests for issues like stress, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as skills, worksheets, and information on mental health
  • American Institute of Stress: This site provides detailed information and resources to help people understand stress, the signs and symptoms of stress and effective methods of coping with and treating stress
  • Trauma Resource Institute: This site has resources and information about trauma, chronic stress, and ways to build resilience in individuals and larger communities

7 sources

Choosing Therapy strives to provide our readers with mental health content that is accurate and actionable. We have high standards for what can be cited within our articles. Acceptable sources include government agencies, universities and colleges, scholarly journals, industry and professional associations, and other high-integrity sources of mental health journalism. Learn more by reviewing our full editorial policy.

  • The American Institute of Stress. Stress research. Retrieved 21, October, 2020 from

  • Franke H. A. (2014). Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 1(3), 390–402.

  • Kung, C. S., & Chan, C. K. (2014). Differential roles of positive and negative perfectionism in predicting occupational eustress and distress. Personality and Individual differences58, 76-81.

  • McGowan, J., Gardner, D., & Fletcher, R. (2006). Positive and negative affective outcomes of occupational stress.  New Zealand Journal of Psychology35(2), 92.

  • Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality41(1), 139-154.

  • Nelson, D. LB. L. Simmons (2004). P. L. Perrewé; D. C. Ganster, eds. Eustress: An Elusive Construct an Engaging Pursuit (First ed.). Oxford, UK: Elsevier Jai. ISBN 0-7623-1057-X.

  • Stapleton, P. (2019). The science behind tapping: A proven stress management technique for the mind and body. Hay House, Inc.

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Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress)

Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress)
  1. Eustress
  2. Distress
  3. Examples of Eustress and Distress
  4. Work and Internal Sources of Distress

Eustress vs.

Distress We mentioned it earlier and it bears repeating: stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is simply the body's response to changes that create taxing demands. The previously mentioned Dr. Lazarus (building on Dr. Selye's work) suggested that there is a difference between eustress, which is a term for positive stress, and distress, which refers to negative stress.

In daily life, we often use the term "stress" to describe negative situations. This leads many people to believe that all stress is bad for you, which is not true.


Eustress, or positive stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Motivates, focuses energy.
  • Is short-term.
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities.
  • Feels exciting.
  • Improves performance.



In contrast, Distress, or negative stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern.
  • Can be short- or long-term.
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities.
  • Feels unpleasant.
  • Decreases performance.
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems.


Examples of Eustress and Distress

It is somewhat hard to categorize stressors into objective lists of those that cause eustress and those that cause distress, because different people will have different reactions to particular situations. However, by generalizing, we can compile a list of stressors that are typically experienced as negative or positive to most people, most of the time.

Examples of negativepersonal stressors include:

  • The death of a spouse.
  • Filing for divorce.
  • Losing contact with loved ones.
  • The death of a family member.
  • Hospitalization (oneself or a family member).
  • Injury or illness (oneself or a family member).
  • Being abused or neglected.
  • Separation from a spouse or committed relationship partner.
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships.
  • Bankruptcy/Money Problems.
  • Unemployment.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Children's problems at school.
  • Legal problems.

Examples of positivepersonal stressors include:

  • Receiving a promotion or raise at work.
  • Starting a new job.
  • Marriage.
  • Buying a home.
  • Having a child.
  • Moving.
  • Taking a vacation.
  • Holiday seasons.
  • Retiring.
  • Taking educational classes or learning a new hobby.

Work and Internal Sources of Distress

Work and employment concerns such as those listed below are also frequent causes of distress:

  • Excessive job demands.
  • Job insecurity.
  • Conflicts with teammates and supervisors.
  • Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks.
  • Lack of training necessary to do the job.
  • Making presentations in front of colleagues or clients.
  • Unproductive and time-consuming meetings.
  • Commuting and travel schedules.

Stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts and habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress.

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Common internally caused sources of distress include:

  • Fears: (e.g., fears of flying, heights, public speaking, chatting with strangers at a party).
  • Repetitive Thought Patterns.
  • Worrying about future events (e. g., waiting for medical test results or job restructuring).
  • Unrealistic, perfectionist expectations.

Habitual behavior patterns that can lead to distress include:

  • Overscheduling.
  • Failing to be assertive.
  • Procrastination and/or failing to plan ahead.

Additional Stress Articles
  • Different Types of Stress 
  • Long Term Consequences of Stress
  • Effects of Stress on Social Help
  • Introduction of Stress
  • Methods of Stress Reduction
  • Prevention of Management and Stress
  • Top 7 Sources of Stress
  • Stress Inoculation Therapy 
  • Stress Management Techniques


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Psychology and health


stress and distress?

Stress is a natural reaction of our body to external stimuli, which can develop into a permanent state and then it becomes dangerous for all your health and normal life. Stress can be of two types: positive (eustress) and negative (distress)

Eustress - caused by positive emotions (positive) and negative events (mobilizing).

In this state, the body is mobilized and concentrated on performing tasks. He successfully copes with the tasks at work and at home. Prolonged negativity leads to a destructive form.

Distress is the second form of stress. Depletes the nervous system and destroys the body. Mental activity suffers, our performance decreases.

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Stress is a state of psychological and physical tension in response to external influences. It can be caused by difficult situations, monotonous activities and emotional factors. Stress helps you adapt to a changing environment, but can have negative health consequences.

Is stress good or not?

Short-term one-time stress has a positive effect. In response to a stimulus, the body produces three hormones: cortisone, adrenaline, noradrenaline and activates the cells of the immune system.

Thanks to this, a person for a short time period:

  • memory improves;

  • increases the level of immunity;

  • the rate of tissue regeneration increases;

  • intellectual abilities are activated;

  • increases the endurance of the nervous system;

  • the functioning of the sense organs improves.

If a person is systematically exposed to a stress factor, all his organs and systems work hard. As a result, the body intensively wastes energy, passing through the three stages of the process.

The first stage takes effect at the moment of exposure to the stress factor, and lasts a few minutes. It is followed by a second one lasting from several hours to several days, during which a person is looking for a solution to the problem or a safe way out of the situation.

If the action of the factor continues, the body depletes the adaptive capacity and ceases to minimize the harmful effects of the stressor. It is at the stage of distress that a person experiences overload, psychological disorders, signs of somatic diseases.

Causes of stress

Allocate systemic and mental type of impact of a stress factor. The systemic type is the body's response to an infectious disease, inflammation, injury, light, high or low temperature. Mental type - manifests itself on the emotional and mental sphere, followed by the biological level.

Mental causes of stress include:

  • professional activities associated with increased responsibility;

  • complex relationships in the family;

  • conflicts, phobias, problems in communication, threats of a different nature, intractable problems, dysfunctional social relations in the team;

  • unfulfilled needs, low self-esteem, perfectionism;

  • change of place of residence or work, monotonous activity, divorce, death of a loved one;

  • information overload;

  • lack of rest sufficient to restore the psyche;

  • psycho-emotional tension caused by risk, time pressure, increased workload, novelty of the situation or its uncertainty.

The consequences of prolonged stress in men and women are the same - depression and somatic diseases. Therefore, it is important to timely note the signs of psychophysical stress, identify its causes and eliminate it.

Signs of stress

Prolonged exposure to a stress factor causes serious stress throughout the body, significantly worsening the general mood and well-being of a person.

Common symptoms of developing stress:

  • Muscle tension in the head, neck, shoulders, back.

  • Increased anxiety.

  • Irritability at the slightest provocation.

  • Reduced performance.

  • Depression, apathy.

  • Sleep disorders.

  • Absent-mindedness, deterioration of memory and ability to concentrate, slowing down the pace of thought processes.

  • Chronic fatigue, pessimism, desire to distance themselves from society.

  • Headache, unexplained chest pain.

  • Disorder of appetite, violation of the digestive function.

Often a person acquires an obsessive habit, for example, biting his lips, turning his neck, straightening his hair.

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