Stress is generally associated with negative mental and physical consequences. But can it actually be a healthy, even sought-after phenomenon at times?

General adaptation syndrome theorist Hans Selye said yes, and in 1974 he developed the term eustress to refer to healthy stress. Quick, Quick, Nelson, and Hurrell expanded the eustress concept by suggesting that in opposition to distress (negative stress), eustress is an optimistic response to a stressor resulting in a positive psychological state. The distinct differences between distress and eustress are listed in the sidebar.

What the Research Tells Us

As early as 1908, two psychologists described a shared relationship between arousal and performance. Yerkes and Dodson noted that when rats received a mild electrical shock, they were motivated to complete a maze. However, if the intensity of the shock was increased, the rats ran around blindly trying to escape the stimulus.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains that peak performance is achieved when people experience moderate levels of stress. Too little stimulus can lead to boredom, but high levels of stress can lead to anxiety, unhappiness, and burnout. Yerkes and Dodson determined that four influencers affect a person’s response to stressful stimuli:

  • Skill level: ability to perform a task
  • Personality: characteristic pattern of behavior
  • Trait anxiety: how a person typically responds to stressors
  • Task complexity: level of attention needed to complete a task

People with high levels of self-efficacy—a belief in their ability to organize and complete an activity—are more likely to experience eustress. Other factors with the potential to increase eustress are persistence, high levels of self-discipline, and the ability to organize tasks and reduce distractions.

How to Practice

At times when you feel your stress level is reaching a tipping point, slow down and identify what specific stressors are contributing to the feeling of distress. Determine if you have the skill level needed to complete the task(s). Are there parts of the task you can delegate? What is preventing you from asking for and accepting help? Make a list of the activities you need to accomplish. As you complete a task, cross it off the list. Giving yourself a visual of what you have been able to achieve can foster self-efficacy and potentially lead to better focus and productivity.