What are the differences between distress and stress?
by James Porter
January 31, 2019
Canadian scientist Hans Selye gets the credit for popularizing the term stress back in the 1930’s when he began to publish hundreds of scientific papers on the subject. This is what Selye liked to say about handling stress: “It’s not so much what happens to you, but how you take it.”
Selye believed you could have good stress and bad stress. He coined the word “eustress” to describe good stress. That’s a combination of the words euphoria and stress put together. He used the word distress to describe bad stress.
So the difference between the two words is that stress stands for all kinds of stress, both good and bad. Distress refers only to bad stress. Distress is stress that upsets you, makes you sick and leaves you feeling tense. Distress could be caused by a traffic jam, getting criticized, a big deadline, or public speaking.
Good stress is winning the lottery, getting a promotion, or overcoming a fear of almost anything. Author, Dr. Robert Eliot liked to call it N.I.C.E. stress. Anything that’s New, Interesting, Challenging or Exciting is NICE stress.
Since, as Selye says, almost ALL stress is a matter of interpretation, you can oftentimes, transform your bad stress into good stress merely by rethinking your position on it: A traffic jam is a chance to listen to a podcast; Getting criticized can be truly helpful; Meeting a big deadline is a chance to impress your boss (or yourself), and public speaking can be a major growth experience.
So understanding that stress isn’t inherently bad, and that it includes both good and bad stress can really set the stage for learning how manage your stress more effectively.