StressStress is an overarching process that describes a demanding (important) transaction between an entity and its environment. In the human context, stress is synonymous with goal striving. It encapsulates psychological, physiological, social, emotional, behavioural and situational concomitants that either thwart or facilitate goal directed behaviour, along with subsidiary responses to goal successes or failures. Any stress researcher knows however, that there is little or no agreement on the definition of stress. One of the most influential proponents of psychological stress is no doubt Richard Lazarus who detailed how stress is by and large a matter of perception.
It is impossible to measure a complete stress episode because 1) it never stops, and 2) the complexity of stress with its subjective or psychological and emotional components does not allow complete disclosure of all processes. Research, at best, attempts to capture a stress state, and typically refers to one or more specific components. That is, research could be concerned with situational demands or stressors, psychosocial or cognitive appraisal processes including, but not limited to, coping, behaviour mechanisms, and/or physiological responses like the well known fight or flight response.
Previous research has been preoccupied with the negative effects of stress, namely a restricted examination of distress. This is clearly demonstrated when the word "distress" is entered into the psychological database called "Psycinfo." That is, over 19,000 (aprox) articles are returned, compared with the entering of "eustress, where a modest 50 (approx) articles are listed.
Eustress is the good stress that we feel when we have, for example, successfully accomplished a challenging task or benefited from our efforts. It entails a person to perceive that they have adequate resources to meet the demand or stressor they have encountered. In essence, eustress is effective goal striving.
Although sitting and watching TV could be considered eustress, one would have to weigh up the gains of such an exercise with the losses of not completing more pressing demands. Perhaps if TV is watched after a strenuous activity, then TV could be associated as a reward of one's efforts. Alternatively, watching one's favourite TV series could be eustressing because it is an important and significant goal that underscores a well balanced life. The point is, most activity is beneficial as long as more important goals are not hindered.
Eustress is regulated by both emotional and situation processes (regulative process). Emotional regulation is the appraisal of gain or benefit - finding the passion or value in the current activity that is demanding necessary effort. Situational regulation involves detailing the demand into clear goals, establishing feedback indicators to monitor success, and maintain control.
Distress ensues when a situation is perceived as threatening, harmful, or loss has occurred. Such perceptions entail us to cope, seeking behavioural, emotional, or social resources to either change the situation or how we feel about the situation.
As mentioned, there is a plethora of research on distress. Researchers have investigated the antecedents of distress. For example, situations that are appraised as ambiguous are often accompanied by feelings of distress. The loss of positive reinforcement, (e.g., money, praise) can be considerably distressing. And, overwhelming demands beyond one's capacity to control, of course, have frequently resulted in negative feelings. In summary, a lack of personal control is a major determinant of distress.
When distress becomes chronic, feelings of helplessness may eventually lead a person to feel completely incapacitated. This is likely to happen when there are limited resources to cope or deal with the stressor. Therefore, it is coping, a regulative process which allows people to move from a negative state of mind to more of a positive frame where they can further explore their potential.
Weighing up the gains and lossesMuch of the skill involved in stress comes down to weighing up the gains and losses. If the gains from attending to the situational encounter outweigh the losses, then the outcome is eustress. On the other hand, if the losses outweigh the gains, then distress is a likely result. This could be viewed as risk management or cost benefit analysis. Nevertheless, sometimes there is no escaping loss, threat, or harm and coping is required.
Governing benefit or gain from situations may be moderated by personality, as some are predisposed to negative exemplars as opposed to positive attributes; research has not even begun to investigate such questions like this. It could be that "satisfiers" (those who know when enough is good enough) are more attuned to the gains of their efforts, whereas "maximisers" (those who are constantly concerned that something more is needed or could be better) find the loss to be chronically accessible to their appraisal processes.
Plenty of research does indeed investigate how perception and situational constraints lead to distress, but inferring from this research and suggesting that antithetical or opposite mechanisms will be moderating eustress is, in my view, partly incorrect. Eustress and Distress are bipolar processes, each regulated by disparate features. In other words, eustress is simply not the lack of distress, but a outcome in and of itself. For example, when Edmond Hillary climbed Mt Everest, the harsh weather would have required him to cope with the bitter cold. However, his excitement, passion, and the gain of conquering the huge landscape obviously outweighed the apparent distress. The point is, coping and exploring work hand in hand