You Stress, I Stress, We All Stress, so let’s De-Stress from Distress!

When I first started teaching psychology for college students, the topic of stress involved understanding the concepts of “eustress” (pronounced: YOU-stress) and “distress.” What both types of stress have in common is that we usually experience strain when adjusting to something in our internal or external environment that requires a higher level of functioning. They differ in the direction of the effect this strain has on functioning.

Eustress is considered a positive form of stress that has a beneficial effect on areas that include health, motivation, learning, performance, and emotional well-being. One example is how exercise exerts the body’s functioning but directly produces health benefits through the physical work and the related neurochemicals that are released. An easy way to remember this concept is to understand that eustress adds to the normal state of functioning and elevates personal development.

Distress is the negative form of stress that relates to being subjected to some prolonged experience that creates and maintains some form of pain or suffering.  Examples that I often hear relate to the daily work or home conditions that people deal with, whether it’s problematic interpersonal interactions, an uncomfortable physical space, long hours with no clear end time, or all of these, that create a physical, mental, and emotional drain that is difficult to recover from. To remember this, visualize that distress subtracts from the normal state of functioning and depletes wellbeing.

Stress Management versus Distress Management

Stress management encompasses a wide range of activities and techniques to manage strain and improve everyday functioning. Some of these skills include deep breathing, mindfulness, grounding, yoga, exercise, sufficient sleep, good nutrition, modifying cognitions, setting personal boundaries, and engaging in hobbies. Yet, why do some people say that no matter what activities they try they only see a minimal reduction in their distress or none at all? There seems to be a missing factor in the equation.

I think this is due to the confusion between activities to avoid the problem through using distractions, distortions, or displacements and work that is done to directly address the issue to reduce the impact or completely eliminate the problem. For example, if you’re having problems completing your work on time then all the recreational activities you do on the weekends are not going to help you resolve your work issues, but time management for your work load may have a directly beneficial effect. Similarly, if you are having problems with your spouse then spending more time at work or out with friends is not going to help relieve problems in your relationship, these may actually make things worse, but learning to communicate, demonstrate empathy, and reciprocating care for each other’s needs may significantly improve the relationship.

I recommend clarifying the idea of stress management with the term distress management. If distress takes away from our wellbeing then what has been depleted needs to be replenished, and the strategies we use for any given situation need to directly add in what is missing in order to see relief and improvement.

But neutralizing a problem is not enough. To achieve a higher state of wellness, we also need to build our positive reserves to manage the eustress and distress of everyday life. We build these reserves by adding more health practices to our routines to elevate our overall wellness far above the range of risk for depletion.

Distress Management, as I define it, is the work that we do to directly counteract or eliminate what is depleting our normal state of functioning, and elevating positive levels of functioning in the affected areas to manage daily life.

A basic formula for the relationship between distress management and overall higher wellness is:

problem + antidote + additional health practices= overall higher level of wellness

With this clarification, we can create a plan of action that directly counteracts the source of our pain and suffering by either removing the source or adding in enough positive elements to reduce or neutralize the effects, and adding more positive energy to raise our functioning to a higher state of wellbeing. The reason we also need the third component is because we don’t gain a lasting effect with just neutralizing the problem (-1 and +1 = 0); we benefit more from developing additional positive reserves that keep us in good standing to manage the both the eustress and distress fluctuations in daily life.

This formula becomes even more important when we face multiple problems at the same time and the  energy of our active state and reserves are being depleted even more rapidly. Stress management as a generalized concept offers too many opportunities for distraction without resolution, but distress management targets each specific problem, adds in the missing elements to reduce or neutralize it to create the intended resolution, and adds in more positive elements to increase our level of functioning beyond our starting point and strengthen our resiliency. People seeking relief are looking to have relief sooner than later, and using this formula also creates a positively reinforcing momentum that motivates us to maintain it.  

Creating an Effective Distress Management Plan, and Increasing Overall Wellness

So what is are effective ways to use the Distress Management formula to reduce problems and achieving a higher level of wellness?

Let’s look at it again: problem + antidote + additional health practices= overall higher level of wellness

Let’s remember why stress management alone is ineffective: Because many people use it to avoid dealing with the problem directly by diverting their attention and energy elsewhere.

Distress Management asks us to understand the problem, develop a clear strategy and plan of action to reduce or neutralize the impact, and fortify positive practices in the affected area to elevate functioning far above the range of risk for depletion.

Some examples would be:

Problem: Physical Fatigue

Antidote: Set Sleep/Wake Times, Taking Breaks, Improve Daily Nutrition

Additional Health Practices: Getting a Physical Exam, Setting Boundaries, Time Management, Delegating

= Overall Higher State of Physical Wellness


Problem: Interpersonal Conflict in Significant Relationship

Antidotes: Clarity, Softer Approach, Couples Dialogue

Additional Health Practices: Date Nights, Love Language Activities, Gottman Love Maps & State of the Union

= Overall Higher State of Relationship Wellness


Problem: Emotional Mood Disturbance (Anxiety, Depression, Anger/Irritability, etc.)

Antidotes: Sensory Comforts that create the opposite emotional effect, Quiet Time & Space

Additional Health Practices: Psychotherapy, Medication, Mood Journal, Creative Activities

= Overall Higher State of Emotional Wellness


Problem: Negative Thinking

Antidotes: Deconstruct Thoughts, Evaluate Evidence For and Against Position, Being Realistic

Additional Health Practices: Psychotherapy, CBT Thought Record, Seek & Create Positive Outcomes and Cognitions

= Overall Higher State of Mental/Cognitive  Wellness


Are there areas of distress in your life? How might the Distress Management formula help you?



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