Sciency Words: Eustress vs. Distress

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


So I’ve been dealing with more stress than usual this past week, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Like cholesterol, there can be good stress and bad stress.

When I started researching this topic, I was surprised to learn that the whole concept of stress, in the psychological sense of the word, is a relatively modern development.  According to the American Institute of Stress, Hungarian-American endocrinologist Hans Selye gets credit for coining the term in 1936.

Selye defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  Selye seems to have gone to great lengths to emphasize that stress is not an inherently bad thing.  As stated in this paper on stress in video games:

Medical anthropologists and others commonly frame stress as negative and connected to poor mental and physical health.  However, Selye (1975) pointed out that stress itself is adrenaline- and/or cortisol-fueled arousal, relatively neutral in character, but rendered by context either pleasurable eustress or painful distress.

Selye gets credit for coining those words as well: eustress and distress.  In this context, the Greek prefixes “eu-” and “dis-” simply mean “good” and “bad,” respectively.

Research and discussion of eustress and distress typically focuses on productivity in the workplace, but I think research related to video games does a better job illustrating the concept.  To quote once more from that stress in video games paper, “Without some degree of stress, there is no fun, a point that both anthropologists and game developers understand well.”

But as the paper goes on to demonstrate, certain hardcore gamers—those who “game too hard and too long”—tend to transition at some point from eustress to distress.  Basically, so long as you feel like you’re “up to the challenge,” whatever that challenge might be, you’re probably experiencing eustress.  But if you start to feel overwhelmed, that’s distress.

The point at which eustress turns into distress is, of course, different for each of us, and it varies from one activity to another.  It may even vary from day to day.  Something that you found eustressful yesterday might suddenly feel distressful today, or vice versa.

As for my own stress this past week, there may have been a little too much distress going on.  But that’s over now, and I’m looking forward to a highly eustressful weekend!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.