Just like good cholesterol, apparently there is good stress. It’s the opposite of distress. I read about it in Stephen Covey’s book 8 Habits of Highly Effective People in an inspiring sentence about retirement:
“Retire from your job but never from meaningful projects. If you want to live a long life, you need eustress, that is, a deep sense of meaning and contribution to worthy projects and causes, particularly your intergenerational family.”
Eustress is not something that we simply feel, but in fact an essential ingredient to live a healthier and apparently a longer life. It also helps us better perform in the tasks that are related to it.
In the face of all major events in our lives, we feel either distress or eustress. The difference is based on how we perceive these events and how we react to them. Good stress helps us become more alert and allows us to perform at our optimum level. On the other hand, bad stress creates the exact opposite effect. Anxiety impairs our concentration, performance and even energy level.
The Yerkes Dodson Law, something less familiar to the commoners like us but well known by psychologists, details how performance is influenced by different stress levels. The chart below summarizes its essence.
Yerkes and Dodson found that performance improves with ‘arousal’ to an optimal level. Once the optimal level is reached, additional stress reduces performance. To little stress on the other hand, does not provide enough motivation, alertness and fails short in helping reach best performance.
Stage performers or people who speak in front of large audiences are often asked “don’t you get nervous up there?” I used to get this question a lot as well when I travelled for the World Bank. My answer, just like most, was that “sure I do, but I love it, and I think without that feeling, I could not find the energy and ability to present the way I do, or answer the questions in the way I can.” Now I’ve learned the name of what I felt. It’s eustress. And it’s addictive.
(Robert M. Yerkes and John D Dodson 1908, The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation.Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482)