When we talk about stress, we almost always identify negative life events and experiences. Money challenges, work problems, health issues, and coping with the pandemic are all examples of negative things most of us would call stressful, but did you know that positive life events can be stressful, too? Interestingly, even though negative life events receive all the attention when it comes to our mental health, in many cases it is the healthy stress that accompanies positive life experiences that goes unnoticed yet still impacts mental health.
Defining “good” stress
Psychologist Hans Seyle defined eustress as a type of stress that results from challenging but enjoyable or worthwhile tasks (i.e., participating in an athletic event, completing new job responsibilities after receiving a promotion). Eustress is not defined by the stress or type, but rather how one perceives the stressors (a negative threat versus a positive challenge). As humans, we are creatures of habit who enjoy predictable patterns when it comes to life. It is from this observation that helps us understand that any life change — perceived good or bad — will result in stress that needs to be identified and addressed.
Understanding how humans identify and respond to life changes allows us to better understand stress, including a few findings below that might surprise you:
- You, or someone you know, might deal with a lot of negative things on a daily basis but actually handle life quite well. Of course, individual coping plays a big role in stress response, but another less observed reason may have to do with the fact that if your daily life is stable and predictable you are less susceptible to change, and therefore less likely to feel the negative effects of stress.
- Good stress, or eustress, is very real. Often the good things that happen to us in life (i.e. a job promotion and/or coming into more money) also bring change by means of new duties and responsibilities. If you have ever wondered why you sometimes feel stressed out even though your life is great, it might be because of the new attention you are receiving for your job promotion, or the increased travel related to the promotion.
Often with positive life experiences there are new changes we don’t always account for, and it is the change in routine that prompts us to rethink things, change behaviors, and sometimes deal with new situations we don’t always enjoy. For example, winning the lottery is great, but how many horror stories have you heard from previous lottery winners who claim coming into big money changed their life, but not for the better when every family member and friend expected that they be taken care of through the lottery winnings.
Challenge or threat?
Perhaps most interesting when it comes to stress is not the nature of the stressor itself (good or bad), but how you frame your situation moving forward. For example, if you just lost your job because of downsizing you have two immediate ways to interpret what just happened:
1.) You could interpret the job loss as a result of your inadequacy and deficiencies, beat yourself up mentally, and carry a poor and pessimsitic attitude moving forward. This mindset, as you might imagine, will only lead to more stress, pessimism, and inevitably poor chances for future improvement and happiness.
2.) You could interpret the job loss as a product of changing times and corporate efficiency, not your lacking skills. In this example you could make a personal challenge from the unfortunate situation and instead clean up your resume, research new companies, network with friends, and possibly gain more education. Rather than see yourself as a helpless victim as in the first example above, you can create a healthy challenge out of the job loss and likely end up dealing with less stress, more confidence, and greater focus for the next exciting chapter in your life.
How we frame life situations is up to us, but choose wisely if you want to increase your chances for future happiness and success.
As humans, we cannot avoid dealing with stress, and stress is experienced in life by means of just about everything we do. While it is true that dealing with a sports injury (negative life event) can be stressful, studying every day to get into law school (positive life event) is equally stressful. Whether something is viewed as “good or bad” may have less bearing on how we deal with stress when compared to a more compelling question: How much are you forced to change your life patterns in order to accommodate the change(s) you face?