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Dr. Debasmita Dey

Everyone experiences stress once in a while. It is part of living. But we are so hell bent on living ‘stress-free’ that we forget it is not always as bad as we make it out to be.

Imagine you have an upcoming examination. But you are not stressed at all. Where, then, would you get the motivation to prepare? The fact that we are stressed before an exam pushes us to invest time and energy into the preparation. If it were not there, we would hardly accomplish anything.

By definition, stress of this kind, which drives us to push our limits and enhances productivity is called eustress. It is the good kind of stress. Here, the person is stressed, but nevertheless, is confident in his/her ability to solve the problem or cope with the trying situation.

Conversely, if he/she is unable to cope and at their wits end, it is distress. In the example above, if a person is driven to despair and panic attacks before an upcoming exam, thus making him/her unable to prepare for it, we would say he/she is distressed.

We therefore understand that given the same situation, it is the person’s ability to cope that determines if they are going to experience eustress or distress.

How does distress manifest? Physical symptoms like headache, loss of appetite, neck and shoulder pain, lump in the throat, back pain, heaviness in chest, tight muscles, stomach upset, skin rashes are common. On a psychological plane, they are unable to focus, lose temper easily, get fidgety, cannot sleep, have mood swings, and experience frequent bouts of guilt feeling.

How to avoid distress?

The idea is to hone our coping skills. Though a detailed discussion on coping skills training is beyond the scope of this article, here are some basics. Whenever under a stressful situation, practice engaging. That is the technical term for being acutely aware of your thoughts, feelings, sensations and your surroundings. When you do that, you interrupt the cycle of anxiety-provoking thoughts that send you on an emotional roller-coaster, leaving you utterly drained and panicked. Stay grounded. Keep a thought journal with you. Whenever there is a distressing thought, write it down, along with the associated feeling. For example, I am not prepared for the examination, I will fail and embarrass myself. The associated feeling is usually fear. It is this overpowering emotion resulting from faulty reasoning that drives you into panic mode. In the next column, write down a more reasonable alternative. Say, I have a week left before the exams, and a lot of ground to cover. I must work harder than usual and come up with a new study routine. The moment you write it down, it is easier to act on it. You have a concrete plan of action, and the overpowering emotions are reigned in. This comes with practice. If you practice these skills on a daily basis, they will come to you naturally in times of crisis.

If you want to learn how to convert distress to eustress, your best bet is to visit a good psychiatrist and get professional advice. Here’s to your ‘eustressed’ future!