When asked to define stress, most people usually refer to its bad side. They describe stress as an unpleasant experience, for example being under too much or too little pressure, feeling frustrated or bored, being in situations which they feel unable to handle or control, thinking that they are a failure, experiencing marital disharmony, bereavement or financial difficulties. What they are in fact describing is distress – the bad aspect of stress. This, left unchecked, can lead to poor performance, decreased productivity and ill health. For the individual, distress can give rise amongst other things to headaches, indigestion, frequent colds, neck and back ache and unhappy relationships. For the company and organization, distress is seen in terms of absenteeism, lost production, poor work performance, accidents, reduced creativity and lack of innovation. Distress can also be ugly. This is the more extreme form of bad stress, leading to physical disability or even death as a result of heart attacks, cancer, anxiety, depression and nervous breakdown.
On the other hand, some people describe stress as a pleasant, exciting, stimulating and thrilling experience. They feel completely capable of handling the demands they face and deliberately put themselves into challenging situations which they know they can handle. The stress they are experiencing is called eustress – or good stress. Tackling interesting and stimulating tasks, being creative and productive, achieving goals and desires and participating in competitive sports can be the joys of stress. Here stress is working for us to improve our performance.
Stress is an experience which is unique to each and every one of us. What is distressful for one individual can be positively eustressful for another person. Deliberately putting ourselves into challenging situations can be distressful as well as eustressful. Someone about to take their first parachute jump may be overcome with fear and unable to jump (distress). An experienced parachutist will jump without worrying about the potentially life-threatening situation and enjoy the thrill of the jump – but with their stress response in a high state of arousal they will be alert and ready to deal with any problems that may arise (eustress).
In this example the situation or demand, the jump, is the same for both parachutists but each experiences a different feeling and level of stress. This is because each assesses the nature of the demand and their own ability to cope with it.