Types of Stress

Lesson objective:

We learn in this lesson about the difference between positive and negative stress, in addition to how the body responds differently to real vs imagined stress.

As we said, stress implies an increased demand on the brain and body. And our stress response is the process by which our bodies adapt to that increased demand. 

Remember that not all stress is bad.

An increased demand on the brain and body can be healthy and positive. 

Some scholars refer to the positive forms of stress as eustress. Examples of eustress include any productive, willful, but demanding task.  Examples of positive stress include:

  •         exercise
  •         studying for a particular exam
  •         moving into a new home
  •         caring for small children
  •         starting a new, difficult job

All of these tasks are usually productive, welcome, and useful, even though they may represent a threat to the status quo, or a challenge to our systems. These events require extra focus, attention, and energy, and can even feel draining in the moment. But, importantly, they are all temporary, the changes we undergo are welcome, and the resources mobilized to meet these needs result in something useful, productive, and positive. 

On the other hand, stress can also be damaging, or negative. Damaging, unwanted stress is also called distress. Examples of distress include:

  • any form of attack (physical or verbal) 
  • losing or leaving a loved one
  • economic pressure and scarcity 
  • being abused, rejected, or neglected
  • experiencing sickness and injury
  • experiencing violence or conflict

These distressing events also challenge our systems in some way. These events require extra focus, attention, and energy, and can even feel draining in the moment. The key distinction between eustress and distress, however, is that distress-inducing events are unwanted, unwelcome, often linger longer than expected. They cause concern and usually produce anxiety. 

Interestingly, the body does not always distinguish between the cause or source of stress, even when we in our minds can understand a welcome versus unwelcome cause of stress. We go through the same allostatic process in adapting to various types of stress. In other words, whether in eustress or distress, the body has a standard way of responding.

When stress comes on the scene, the predictive brain interprets a forthcoming increased demand and coordinates a response to meet the challenge. 


When short term and welcome, this response can help us increase our focus, attention, and performance. For example, when we need to finish a run or a specific exercise goal, our bodily systems can rally to fuel a boost in energy, and ensure success to the finish line. When unwanted, long-term, or constant, the overactivation of the stress response can have many negative impacts on the body, which we will talk about later. 

As with all things to do with the predictive brain, the stress response starts in the control tower. It starts with communication. Let’s have a look.