It took Hans Selye nearly forty years to put all the pieces together in the puzzle we call stress. If we read his works carefully, he not only explained exactly what stress is, he presented us with the key to preventing nearly all of our distress and managing the times when our distress is unavoidable.
But by the time he had so elegantly described the physiological continuum of distress, stress, and eustress, treating “stress” had already become a huge business and the pharmaceutical companies were ecstatic.
Hans Selye was a Physiologist, not a psychiatrist. He studied what was actually going on in the body, instead of imagining what might be happening in someone’s mind. His work gave us the answers we needed. He told us Stress is “the work of living the body must do.”
Since the psychiatrists had chosen to focus only on the negative aspects of stress, Selye spent a lot of time explaining that was only half of the story about stress.
He said there are two kinds of stress.
Eustress, “good stress,” is work we like. We are enjoying “the work” we are doing.” It is creating chemicals that make us feel “good” and we perceive “the work” as positive.
Distress, “bad stress,” is work we do not like. We have an aversion to “the work” we are doing. It is creating chemicals that make us feel “bad” and we perceive “the work” as negative.
Stress, by itself, is just “the work.” Our body does not actually have an opinion about the work. If we are really enjoying what we are doing, we might be exhausted, but we keep doing it because we feel so good we do not want to stop. On the other hand, if the work is something we do not like, we may be exhausted just by thinking about having to do it.
Let’s consider our job as an example. If we like our job, we usually sleep well and we wake up ready to go, anticipating another day doing work we feel has value with people we like, and we are going to enjoy the day.
If we really do not like our job, we usually do not sleep well, we wake up tired, anticipating suffering through another day in a job we cannot stand.
Both Eustress and Distress are, simply put, stories we tell ourselves about “the work” we are either doing or are going to do.”
But who decides the qualities we assign to the things we perceive? Who decides whether we like something or not? We each do. We are the one who decides whether it is Eustress, Stress, or Distress, and we manifest those decisions in the mental stories we tell ourselves about “the work.”
We are not really interested in avoiding Eustress. What we are all interested in is eliminating all the Distress we can, and Frankl told us how.
Viktor Frankl said, “The brain is a stimulus-response organ, but between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our ability to choose, and in our choice lies our freedom.”
The “space” Frankl was talking about really does exist. Benjamin Libet’s famous study showed there is a half second space between a stimulus in our conscious brain and our choice of how we are going to respond to that stimulus. We should all be grateful he did.
His work gives us neuroscientific evidence why Viktor Frankl’s famous quote is so much more than just accurate, it is the key to being able to prevent nearly all our negative emotions by stopping them before they get out of control and cause us problems.
So, this is what “distress” really is. It is anxiety about a specific event in the future. That’s not a very big difference, is it?
There is a huge difference, however, between fear and anxiety. Understanding the difference will provide you with the rest of the “knowledge” you need to be able to start using the skills for preventing most of your anxiety and distress, and managing your negative emotions during the times in your life when they are unavoidable.
©2020 Douglas McKee