Distress vs. Stress: What’s the Difference?

When we talk about stress, we’re usually referring to something challenging and uncomfortable. But stress doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are subtle yet important differences between distress and stress.
At its most basic, stress is simply a reaction to a situation that calls for a reaction. In the 1960s, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific responses of the body to any demand for change.”
What makes stress good or bad is the way we perceive it. So if we think of stress as helpful and motivating vs. negative and debilitating, we can transform the way it affects us. Hence, the way we perceive stress—whether positive or negative—can have a powerful impact on our lives.
“It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.”
—Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Definition of Stress
In physiological terms, stress is an activation of the nervous system. A threat of some kind triggers the release of stress hormones in the body, including adrenaline and cortisol. As a result, the sympathetic nervous system, also called the “fight-or-flight” system or the “stress response,” kicks into action.
The fight-or-flight system prepares us for facing dangerous situations by putting our senses and biological mechanisms on high alert. Our heartbeat gets faster, our pulse rate increases, our muscles tense, and our blood pressure goes up.
This survival mechanism served humans well back when we faced daily threats in our environment—like lions and tigers and bears. In the 21st century, however, most of us don’t face life-or-death situations on a daily basis. Instead, our stress response is activated by events such as speaking in front of a crowd or being stuck in a traffic jam. For teens, taking the SATs, going to a social event alone, or even a difficult interaction on social media can trigger the stress response.
Understanding Distress vs. Stress
Over time, the accumulation of everyday stress responses in the body and mind can erode our sense of well-being and lead to low mood and a feeling of being on edge all the time. That’s when stress becomes distress. In addition, anticipatory anxiety—feelings of dread about a potentially stressful event in the future—contributes to distress.
In comparing distress vs. stress, symptoms and consequences of distress include the following:
  • Creates discomfort and tension
  • Lasts longer than the initial stress response
  • Presents us with challenges we don’t have the skills to handle
  • May lead to anxiety disorders if not addressed
  • Can contribute to physical issues, such as back pain and stomach problems.
Usually, we experience relief from distress when the stressful event or situation ends. However, the mind and body can become accustomed to a state of distress. As a result, our brains and behavior patterns are conditioned to go into that state more easily.
Distress vs. Stress vs. Anxiety
Stress is unavoidable. And some amount of distress is normal, too. However, when prolonged distress progresses into teen anxiety, that’s when assessment and treatment are needed. Here are some signs of a teen anxiety disorder:
  • Academic performance suffers
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Withdrawal from social interactions and friendships
  • Fatigue and sleep issues
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
A combination of clinical and experiential therapy is effective for addressing anxiety disorders in teens and young adults.
Can Stress Be Good for You?
Stress is a survival mechanism. It gives us extra energy and increases our focus and performance. And we can use that response in ways that benefit us.
Hans Selye introduced the concept of positive stress, or eustress, in 1974. He defined eustress as “healthy, positive, constructive results of stressful events and the stress response.”
When we confront big, exciting changes in our lives with positivity and hope, we’re experiencing eustress—for example, when a teenager goes off to college or has their first romantic relationship, or when a young adult starts their first job. These experiences are associated with feelings of motivation, energy, and inspiration.
Teen Tools for Reframing Stress
Along with minimizing unnecessary stress in our lives, it’s possible to change the way we perceive stress. We can transform distress into eustress. For teens and young adults, it’s especially important to build a habit of reframing stress. Hence, they can alleviate the negative impact of distress on emotional and physical health.
Research shows that when we think about stress as excitement, we perform better under pressure and feel better about the results. Several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance showed that people who told themselves they were excited rather than stressed felt more confident and competent during the experience.
Moreover, adopting an optimistic attitude can reduce stress. One study found that optimistic people had more stable levels of cortisol. We can enhance our optimism by focusing on positive outcomes and on our natural strengths.
In summary, understanding distress vs. stress can give teens and young adults a sense of control over their emotions and circumstances. No matter what life brings, they can use it to become stronger and more self-aware.
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