Welcome to this week’s edition of The Source in which we explore the idea that there really is something called good stress… and it’s called eustress.
In my video, you probably heard me mention something called eustress. As I briefly described, good stress is the thrill that we experience when we feel excited but not really threatened—taking on a challenge that is a bit beyond our reach but attainable if we give it our all. In a classic eustress scenario, our goal is in sight; but to achieve it requires a commitment of time, energy, and will. In the process, we dig deep to summon perseverance, courage, determination, or motivation. And in these core moments of deep immersion into the experience, we are fully present in the task or mission.
Often described as being “in the zone,” the eustress experience creates a scenario where we have no sense of time. In those moments of what modern science refers to as flow, we become the fusion of focus, chemical rushes, and feelings of accomplishment. We’ve all been there—performing some challenging task with such deep absorption that we feel we are one with whatever we’re doing. These are the times we’ve said the perfect words at the perfect moment, run the perfect race, held the room captive as we’ve told the most entertaining story, played tennis like Roger Federer, gardened as if we were one with the earth, cooked as if we were master chefs.
There are so many archetypal superstars we have admired and drawn inspiration from over the course of our lives who have publicly exhibited that state of flow in the extreme. Some of them may also have had their demons; but in their peak performance moments, they tapped into a brilliant, dynamic, creative flow that impacted the world and set them apart from their peers. In basketball, we look to Michael Jordan; in media influence, we think of Oprah Winfrey; in hockey, Wayne Gretzky; in dance, Mikhail Baryshnikov; in comedy, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor; in technology, Steve Jobs; in the world of inventions, Elon Musk; in social change, Martin Luther King, Jr. The list goes on and on. But those are only a few of the more famous people who have thrived in the moment of their eustress. There are billions who do it every day.
The triggers for eustress can be simple activities or when trying anything new where the outcome is unknown, such as knitting a scarf competing in a tournament, or performing surgery. We can even reinterpret what we feared as a threat to be a challenge and shift our mind-set from “Oh no!” to “Bring it on!” Ideally, when the goal has been reached, we feel deep satisfaction, which rewards the effort. But these are the three key aspects of eustress:
- We interpret the stressor as a positive experience (this is critical).
- We consider it a worthy endeavor.
- We believe the activity will increase our skill level.
During and after the stressful period, we are physically and emotionally rewarded with a surge of one of our feel-good chemicals—the success hormone dopamine—which creates the feeling we have succeeded at something. I refer to it as the Eureka! Hormone. (“Eureka!” means “I’ve found it!”)
For eustress to retain its positive impact, the activity must be relatively short-lived and perceived primarily as a good experience. If the stress period goes on too long or happens too frequently, it will devolve into chronic stress, which is never good. You’ve probably experienced eustress in the past week—meeting someone who makes your heart race, rushing to get to a party or a concert and feeling giddy when you get there, making a big presentation and basking in the afterglow, playing some competitive sport and feeling like an Olympic athlete, or finishing a project or a chore you’ve been delaying and feeling the tingling of relief and reward simultaneously.
Our pulse quickens, our breath becomes short and shallow, and hormones surge through us. We can even get a bit light-headed at times as the chemicals in our body shift around. We may feel a little scared about some aspect of the activity, but the rush of excitement is short-lived, and we are challenged but never feel an actual threat to our lives.
The newest brain science has revealed that short-term acute stress actually nourishes and readies the brain for improved performance. You can read more about those studies in my book. Whether you are a dog, a rat, or a human, that surge of eustress must be short-lived or else it turns into chronic stress, which elevates glucocorticoid stress hormones, which then suppress growth, impair memory, and actually stunt us!
This may sound like gobbledygook to you, but bear with me for a moment because I want to share something that’s truly amazing. When you experience acute stress, a burst of the stress hormone corticosterone stimulates astrocytes (the cells composing most of your brain), which then release fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2). This nourishes your stem cells, turning them into new neurons and increasing the gray matter in your hippocampus. This leads to faster learning, better retention, and expanded awareness!!!
Eustress keeps life fun, vital, exciting, and chock-full of meaning. It coaxes us to stay motivated—to wake up and do it all over again. Both your body and your mind are impacted by stress; yet when the experience itself is clearly defined, is relatively short term, and has a beginning and an end, we recover quickly. Once it has ended, your bodymind (a term showing that your body and mind are a single, integrated whole) signals the “all clear” alert, and all the chemicals and hormones triggered by the stressful moment ease back down, leaving you in the afterglow of a feel-good, dopa- mine orgasm—fist pumping in the air, telling everyone around you about your success, and celebrating your win.
If you’re looking for meditations specifically for you to destressify in the moment, try these at work, in the car, on the commuter train, or when the kids are driving you crazy! You can find these and more meditations for every occasion in the online store.