Distress & Eustress - Stress, Stress, Stress!

May 24, 2022

“Time isn’t passing any faster than it used to, but we’re passing it faster.” George Orwell’s famous quote is a fitting description of what many people in the 21st century are experiencing. Factors such as globalization and digitalization have led to an accelerated tempo in our private and professional lives, becoming a common cause of stress for many. Especially in New Work processes, which thrive on agility and flexibility, stress is, in many respects, an important issue. For one, because we’re often working under stress, and secondly, because New Work companies take stress compensation and the work-life balance seriously. Yet stress isn’t all the same: while some cannot work at all under stress, there are others who are spurned on to dazzling performances by it. Perhaps that’s due to the type of stress being experienced – good or bad, distinctively known as distress and eustress. 

Distress – or, when the projector’s not working during the pitch! 

First the pitch deck had to get done during an all-nighter, then the projector conked out in the middle of the pitch. This is definitely a stressful situation and a good example of what distress, the negative form of stress, can be like. We often associate the word “distress” with objects or people needing assistance, such as a ship in distress, but here the word is relying on the Latin prefix dis- and its negative meaning for the word it precedes. Distress, as you can probably imagine, is the kind of stress which impacts us detrimentally, making us feel burdened and strained. Unfortunately, this type of stress is often present in our daily work routines. Whether it’s a blackout during a meeting, grappling to organize your thoughts or a sudden case of writer’s block when a deadline is looming ahead: when we experience distress our bodies enact the fight-or-flight response, which manifests itself in both psychological and physical tensions. We may feel vaguely nervous, notice that our pulse is racing or that we have an aching neck or back. This is due to the stress hormone cortisol being released into our bodies. Over a longer period, this can cause damage to the nerve cells in our limbic system, causing an increase in forgetfulness and irritability. Additionally, over time the presence of elevated cortisol levels can lead to high blood pressure and sleep disturbances. Negative stress, in general, weakens our immune system and can bring on depression. Therefore, distress should be taken seriously, in light of its ability to negatively impact our health in the long term.   

Eustress – or, when stress makes you euphoric!

Facing challenges can be stressful, but they can also make you feel pretty good when you’ve mastered the challenge, like when you come out of an important meeting knowing you were at the top of your game. Organizing a birthday party can be pretty stressful, too – but still, we’re looking forward to the event. The difference here – unlike distress – is that we perceive the stressful experience as something positive. This is known as eustress. The Greek prefix eu- means “good, pleasant, true”. Many employees in New Work environments certainly encounter eustress in their work routines. That’s when you (despite pressure) have the ability to get into a flow, remaining precisely focused on your pitch deck or putting together a presentation. In such situations, the stress hormones we release are allowing us to be more concentrated and motivated. The dopamine that’s additionally present is what makes us feel optimistic, happy, self-confident and able to take on any challenge.  

An anti-stress notice for all New Work employees

Even if the high that comes along with eustress sounds very tempting, our exposure levels to presumedly positive stress should be taken with caution. Eustress is rather short-lived in comparison to the long-term and recurring nature of distress. That’s also why eustress is not viewed as a health threat for our bodies. Yet we should always keep in mind: eustress can easily derail into distress. Therefore, continual self-reflection is necessary to spot when positive stress is turning into negative stress. That being said, after a bout of stress – even when it’s positive stress – we need the chance to wind down. So, to everyone out there working in a New Work atmosphere: even if being under stress is considered normal in today’s society, too much stress is by no means healthy and is simply not cool, either. Yoga, sports, meditation, being outdoors, music or whatever works – discover what personally helps you to manage negative stress. New Work practices such as flexible working times or the opportunity to work remotely make it possible to arrange your working day to fit your needs a bit better. Many companies also identify themselves as safe spaces, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by negative stress it’s advisable to openly discuss the situation with others and work together to ultimately find effective ways to reduce the stress.