How to make the most of good stress and manage the bad

Sep 28, 2022 - neurocare group

The difference between Stress and Distress: How to make the most of good stress and manage the bad

Stress, or more accurately distress, occurs when the demands on a person become greater than their abilities, skills, or coping strategies.

“Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation and is the body’s way of protecting you,” says Senior Clinical Psychologist and Head of Clinical Services at Black Dog Institute, Laura Kampel.

It’s important to recognise that stress is ‘designed’ to be a short-term experience and can even be helpful in many situations (more on healthy stress or Eustress later).

However, too much stress too often, or chronic stress, can take a heavy toll on our health, wellbeing, performance and our relationships.

Stress levels in Australia are rising

A survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society 1, found the wellbeing of Australian’s has been declining in recent years with respondents reporting lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety.

The survey on Stress and Wellbeing in Australia found:

  • Younger adults (18-25) consistently reported lower levels of wellbeing
  • Personal finance, health and family issues are the top stressors across all age groups
  • Pressure to maintain a healthy lifestyle was the fourth most common cause of stress
  • Most Australians surveyed felt that stress impacted their physical health (72%) and mental health (64%) but very few reported seeking professional help
  • More than one in 10 Australians (12%) reported keeping up with social media networks contributed to their overall levels of stress.


Findings from the Stress and Wellbeing Survey, Australian Psychological Society.  It’s not just adults who are impacted. According to research from Headspace and the National Union of Students, 83.2% of Australian university and TAFE students reported their health and wellbeing was negatively affected by stress.

There’s more to stress is more than DIStress

Today the word stress is synonymous with distress. There is a common belief that:

Stress = Distress = Health Risk…

With this prevailing belief, and ‘stress’ having become the equivalent of ‘distress’, many people have become stressed about stress! Obviously, as a stress management strategy this is not ideal!!

While it is true that feeling stressed does push people into uneasy states, stress is more than distress, and the idea that “stress is bad” is problematic, if not harmful, to our health.

What is the purpose of stress?

The body’s Stress Response evolved to help us survive and to learn. The cascade of hormones released during the Stress Response primes the body for action, heightens your senses and improves your performance.

Stress impacts our minds and bodies. Any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain engages the body’s Stress Response System – alerting us that the ‘stressor’ requires attention and / or action, for example:

  • Exercise is a physical stressor, which then prompts us to rest, nourish and recover
  • Dangerous situations, for example a hot surface, warn us to protect ourselves by moving away from or leaving the situation
  • Uncertainty when perceived as a threat, may motivate us to seek certainty within, or to adjust our perception of uncertainty

Stress can also contribute to understanding and memory by triggering the hormone Cortisol, an important modulator of mechanisms involved in learning. Mild stress also causes the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to be released by nerve cells in the brain. This is the same process that occurs when people are concentrating on learning something new.

Healthy stress or stress

Yes, stress can be healthy! In fact, we need some level of stress to grow, learn, and adapt. A lack of ‘healthy stress’ often leaves us feeling a little lost, directionless, and unhappy.

Healthy stress is sometimes called ‘eustress’. It refers to stress that leads to positive outcomes and is often termed in opposite to ‘distress’. It contributes to feelings of confidence, adequacy and self-efficacy stimulated by the challenge and the accomplishment of the challenge experienced.

Eustress tends to be short term and encompasses feelings of excitement and challenge (although some sensations resemble distress – such as increased heart rate, a sense of anticipation and overwhelm). The state delivers a number of physical benefits including a decrease in oxidative stress to the body (known to damage tissue and contribute to disease) and decreased inflammation, as well as improved heart health and overall endurance.

Eustress is perceived as manageable and motivating, for example:

  • Major life changes such as beginning a new job, starting a new relationship or becoming a parent
  • Smaller life adjustments including working out, embarking on a new challenge, or going on a first date

In some instances, distress can transform into eustress. For example, a job loss or breakup might initially be upsetting, but it may be perceived as an opportunity for change and growth over time. This is because working and living outside of our comfort zone is a good thing. That’s what makes eustress such an important part of our overall health.

Harnessing stress

Psychologists suggest eustress is all about sufficiently challenging yourself without expending all your resources. This type of stress empowers you to grow in three areas:

 Emotionally, eustress can result in positive feelings of contentment, inspiration, motivation, and flow.
 Psychologically, eustress helps us build our self-efficacy, autonomy, and resilience.
 Physically, eustress helps us build our body (e.g., through completing a challenging workout).

When good stress turns bad

While beneficial in manageable doses, ongoing or chronic stress and subsequent increased cortisol levels begin to hinder memory retrieval and impair thinking.

Stress or Distress can make you feel overwhelmed because your internal resources (physical, mental, emotional), or external resources (time, money, people) are inadequate to meet the demands you’re facing. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and a decrease in performance.

The connection between mind and body becomes more apparent when examining the impacts of stress. Not only can feeling stressed about something create physical and mental health issues, the Inverse is also true – health issues will also affect stress levels.

In short, what the brain experiences the body responds to accordingly and vice versa.

How to manage stress

Managing stress is not about preventing stress altogether. While higher levels of stress can feel overwhelming, the good news is that by changing our situation (how we respond to stress) and our thinking (how we perceive stress) we have the ability to manage it.

There are several simple relaxation techniques you can employ to boost your ability to cope including mindfulness, breathing techniques and exercise, which are worth incorporating into your lifestyle.

In cases of high or chronic stress a health coach can be a huge help. A coach can help identify and improve the behaviours that contribute to stress, and work with you to develop the internal and external resources to harnesses the positive aspects of eustress, enabling you to channel this towards achieving your goals.

Health Coaching at neurocare

Stress is ultimately an imbalance between the demands you face and your ability to cope. At neurocare, our coaching team works on both side of this equation to create balance and wellbeing.

Managing demands: You coach will work with you to identify actions and situations that result in stress and help to implement psychological and behavioural changes around these. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding stressful situations, rather it is about changing how your view them, reframing the situation where possible and developing new skills to improve your stress tolerance and management strategies.

Developing your resources: Your coach will work with you on bringing awareness to your internal resources or resilience as well as leveraging external resources to add to your wellbeing toolkit.

“When we change the negative perception of stress and learn to better work with and manage (rather than eradicate) stress, we have the potential to transform our lives.”

Marissa Downes, Integrative Health Coach at neurocare

Interested in getting some support to manage stress?

If you are experiencing high stress and need help and support, consider making an appointment with one of neurocare’s certified health coaches. You can make an enquiry here or read more about the service on our Health Coaching page.


Australian Psychological Society (2015). Stress and wellbeing: How Australians are coping with life.


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