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November 29, 2023 8 min read

Physical excellence often intertwines with the dance of stress in the dynamic world of sports and fitness. For athletes, strength builders, and fitness enthusiasts, stress can come in two forms: eustress and distress.

Eustress is a positive force that helps people reach their athletic goals. It is a motivating companion that helps people grow and be resilient. On the other hand, when challenges exceed the body's capacity, distress can emerge, leading to fatigue, burnout, and potential setbacks.

It's important to understand how these two aspects of stress work together for those who are trying to stay fit and active. This article delves into the distinctive features of eustress and distress, unraveling their impact on individuals striving for peak performance and well-being.

The Father of Stress Research.

Until the mid-20th century, stress was a term used only in physics. It referred to the interaction between a force and the resistance to counter that force. Then came the scientist,  Hans Selye.

Hans first identified stress as a bodily response to any demand and is known as the ‘father of stress research.’ It was his opinion that “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

The Difference Between Eustress and Distress

Eustress and distress are terms used to describe different types of stress, and in our daily lives, they refer to the positive and negative aspects of stress, respectively.

1. Eustress

Eustress is good

    Definition: Eustress is a good feeling of stress that comes from situations that seem hard but are easy to handle. The prefix “eu-” is derived from the Greek word for “good” or “well,” and “stress” pertains to any type of alteration that can lead to strain. The phenomenon of eustress is frequently regarded as a motivating factor, and it has the potential to enhance one's performance and enhance their focus.

    Characteristics: The term 'eustress' is commonly associated with positive emotions and feelings. Examples of eustress could include coping with starting a new job, taking on a challenging project, or participating in a competitive event. It is usually short-term circumstances that are easy to deal with.

2. Distress

Distress Balloon

    Definition: Distress refers to a negative or harmful stress that arises when the demands placed on an individual exceed their capacity to cope. It is frequently associated with feelings of anxiety, fear, or unease.

    Characteristics: The occurrence of distress can be either acute or chronic, and its prolonged presence may result in  adverse health outcomes. It is frequently associated with feelings of overwhelming pressure and a sense of inability to cope. Relationship issues, work-related difficulties, or financial troubles are some examples of distress.

Eustress, Distress, and the Fitness Enthusiast? 

For fitness enthusiasts, eustress, and distress can have significant implications on their overall well-being and performance.

1. Eustress in Fitness

Athlete Eustress

    Positive Impact: Eustress in the context of fitness is often associated with positive challenges and goal-setting. For example, setting and achieving fitness goals, participating in challenging workouts, or taking on new and exciting physical activities can generate eustress.

    Motivation and Growth: Eustress can contribute to improved motivation, focus, and a sense of accomplishment. Overcoming physical challenges through exercise can lead to personal growth and improved fitness levels.

    Adaptation and Resilience: During workouts, exposure to manageable levels of stress helps the body adapt and become more resilient. This type of stress is important for improving strength, endurance, and overall fitness.

2. Distress in Fitness

Athlete in distress

    Negative Impact: The occurrence of distress in the context of fitness can stem from various factors, including excessive training, unattainable goals, and peer comparisons. These factors can lead to physical and emotional strain, and they may negatively impact an individual's well-being.

    Burnout and Injury Risk: Excessive training without adequate rest can lead to burnout, fatigue, and an increased risk of injury. Unrealistic body image expectations or unhealthful fitness practices can play a significant role in causing mental health issues.

    Loss of Enjoyment: When fitness becomes too stressful, it can make it difficult to enjoy and stay motivated. This, in turn, may result in a decrease in physical activity and overall fitness levels.

Balancing Eustress and Distress in Fitness

Balance Eustress and Distress

    Mindful Training: Fitness enthusiasts should engage in mindful training, recognizing when the challenges are beneficial (eustress) and when they may be detrimental (distress).

   — Variety in Workouts: Incorporating various exercises and workouts can prevent monotony and reduce the risk of distress associated with repetitive routines. 

   — Rest and Recovery: Getting adequate  rest and recovery is essential to prevent distress. Overtraining without sufficient recovery can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. 

   — Realistic Goal Setting:  Setting realistic and achievable fitness goals can help create a positive and challenging fitness environment without overwhelming stress.

In summary, for fitness enthusiasts, eustress can contribute to motivation, growth, and physical adaptation, while distress, if not managed properly, can lead to burnout, injuries, and a decline in overall well-being. A healthy and sustainable approach to fitness requires striking a balance between positive challenges and self-care.

How Does the Body React to Eustress vs. Distress

Adrenaline

Stress, whether it be eustress or distress, involves the release of various hormones that help the body prepare for challenging situations.

In response to stress, the body triggers two crucial hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline, also referred to as epinephrine. The adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney, release these hormones.

1. Cortisol

    Eustress: Cortisol is involved in regulating energy, metabolism, and immune function, and in moderate amounts, it can be associated with eustress.  During positive stress, cortisol levels may go up temporarily to give the body the energy it needs to respond to the challenge.

    Distress: Prolonged or chronic stress, however, can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, which may negatively impact various bodily functions. Chronic stress has been associated with various health issues, including disturbed sleep patterns, compromised immune function, and metabolic imbalances.

2. Adrenaline (Epinephrine)

    Eustress: Adrenaline is often associated with the “fight or flight” response. Medically, the  fight-or-flight response is known as the acute stress response. In situations of positive stress (eustress), the release of adrenaline prepares the body for action. This can lead to increased alertness, heightened senses, and a temporary boost in physical performance. which play an essential role in the 'fight-or-flight' response.

    Distress: In times of distress, the release of adrenaline can become more prolonged and excessive, contributing to feelings of anxiety, jitteriness, and, over time, potentially leading to fatigue and burnout.

3. Endorphins

    Eustress: Endorphins are typically referred to as “feel-good” hormones. They are released during physical activity, and their release can contribute to a positive and pleasurable feeling, often referred to as a “runner's high.” Engaging in enjoyable and challenging physical activities can trigger the release of endorphins.

    Distress: In situations of distress, engaging in physical activity that is enjoyable and within one's capabilities can still stimulate the release of endorphins, potentially helping to alleviate some negative emotional effects of stress.

4. Oxytocin

    Eustress: Oxytocin is often referred to as the “bonding hormone” or “love hormone.” Positive social interactions, such as supportive relationships or connections, like with a gym-buddy, can stimulate the release of oxytocin. This hormone is associated with feelings of trust and social bonding.

    Distress: Engaging in supportive social interactions during times of distress can help mitigate the negative effects of stress by promoting the release of oxytocin.

It's important to know that hormones and stress have a complicated connection, and how they affect people can be different. Furthermore, other hormones and neurotransmitters may also play a role in the stress response. 

These hormones are essential for maintaining physical and mental well-being in response to stress, whether they are positive (eustress) or negative (distress) hormones.

Signs and Symptoms of Eustress and Distress

Coping styles and symptoms of stress vary from person to person because everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. 

Fitness enthusiasts may experience signs and symptoms of both eustress and distress, and it's essential to be aware of these indicators to maintain a healthy and balanced approach to fitness.

Here are some common signs and symptoms associated with each:

    Eustress:

Motivated athletes

During periods of eustress, focusing on the task at hand becomes easier, and you’ll have enough stamina to get it done.

  1. Increased Motivation: Feeling motivated and excited about fitness goals and challenges.
  2. Positive Outlook: Maintaining a positive attitude towards workouts and viewing challenges as opportunities for growth.
  3. Enhanced Performance: Improved physical performance, increased strength, and endurance.
  4. Sense of Accomplishment: Experiencing a sense of achievement and accomplishment after reaching fitness milestones.
  5. Adaptation and Progress: Noticing positive adaptations to training, such as increased fitness levels and improved body composition.
  6. Enjoyment of Exercise: Finding joy and satisfaction in physical activity, enjoying the process of working towards fitness goals.

   Distress:

Fatigued Athlete

Distress is draining because you see the challenge in a negative light.

  1. Chronic Fatigue: Experiencing persistent fatigue and low-energy levels, even after adequate rest.
  2. Decreased Performance: Noticing a decline in physical performance, with workouts feeling more challenging than usual.
  3. Irritability and Mood Swings: Increased irritability, mood swings, or feelings of frustration related to fitness activities.
  4. Persistent Soreness or Pain: Experiencing persistent muscle soreness, joint pain, or injuries that do not improve with rest.
  5. Disrupted Sleep Patterns: Changes in sleep patterns, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, which can affect recovery.
  6. Loss of Interest: Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable, including fitness routines.
  7. Negative Body Image: Developing negative thoughts or concerns about body image, leading to unhealthy behaviors or attitudes.
  8. Social Withdrawal: Withdrawing from social interactions related to fitness, avoiding workout partners or fitness classes.

How to Turn Distress into Eustress

Distress to Eustress

The age-old “fake it till you make it” strategy might help turn distress into eustress.

A 2020 study published by Oxford Academic found that participants who used self-affirmations felt less stressed and fared better in complicated tasks. Self-affirmations are statements that affirm the person’s worth, such as “I am confident, I am strong”.

It is possible to transition from distress to eustress under certain circumstances, but it often depends on how the individual copes with and manages the stressors they are facing.

Here are a few ways in which distress might turn into eustress:

  1. Adaptation and Coping: As individuals learn coping strategies and develop resilience, they may find that what initially caused distress becomes a source of eustress. Overcoming difficulties and building coping skills can lead to personal growth and a more positive outlook.
  2. Shift in Perception: It is possible to shift from distress to eustress by changing one's perspective on a stressful situation. This may include considering challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, rather than insurmountable problems.
  3. Setting Realistic Goals: When individuals set unrealistic or unattainable goals, stress can arise. Setting goals that are more realistic and achievable can transform the stress associated with them into a positive challenge, leading to eustress.
  4. Learning and Improvement: If a lack of skills or knowledge in a particular area is the cause of distress, acquiring the necessary skills through learning and improvement can turn the situation into eustress. Gaining competence and confidence in facing challenges often leads to a more positive stress response.
  5. Social Support: Having a strong support system can play a significant role in turning distress into eustress. When individuals receive encouragement, understanding, and assistance from others, it can make the challenges more manageable and less overwhelming.
  6. Adopting a Growth Mindset: Embracing a growth mindset, where challenges are considered opportunities to learn and develop, can contribute to the transformation of distress into eustress. A growth mindset fosters a belief in the ability to improve and overcome obstacles.

Not all distress can or should be turned into eustress, especially when the stressors are overwhelming or harmful. Chronic stress that exceeds an individual's capacity to cope may lead to negative health outcomes. It's important to get help from professionals like counselors or therapists to manage stress and overall well-being.

Conclusion

In the intricate web of athletic and fitness pursuits, the delicate equilibrium between eustress and distress emerges as a crucial factor in determining success and sustained well-being.

For athletes, strength builders, and fitness enthusiasts, recognizing the signs and symptoms of both eustress and distress becomes a compass guiding them through the ups and downs of their journey. Striking this equilibrium requires mindful training, realistic goal setting, and a commitment to holistic well-being.

It is possible to cultivate resilience by harnessing the positive energy of eustress and addressing the challenges posed by distress, and ultimately enjoy their athletic pursuits. Understanding the dual nature of stress is not only a key to unlocking potential, but also a roadmap for a sustainable and fulfilling fitness journey.