All Stress is Not Distress

Posted | by Mary Hofstedt | Posted in Ideas that Challenge

At Challenge Success, we sometimes get the question: can’t some forms of stress be okay, or even helpful for students? Absolutely. Stress — like most things — operates on a continuum, and can take both positive and negative forms. At Challenge Success, we work to decrease the unhealthy forms of stress, so that students can thrive as learners and contribute to their schools and communities.

Some kinds of stress (called eustress) can be motivating. Eustress, which might be experienced when a student is learning a new skill or being challenged to move outside of her comfort zone, can support development of confidence and competence. Eustress can create excitement and energy, and highlight that something is important and worth striving toward. Importantly, eustress tends to be short term, within a child’s perceived capacity to handle, and often leads to growth. As parents, researchers, and educators, we embrace the role of this type of stress, as it can help kids to stretch and achieve in valuable ways.

However, many kids are burdened by distress: the ongoing stress that can be harmful to their health and interfere with positive growth and development. Chronic distress is often perceived by students as outside of their capacity to handle. It undercuts motivation, connection, and well-being. It can lead to mental and physical health issues like anxiety and depression, disengagement from learning, risky behaviors, and disconnection from school, family, and friends.

The tricky part for adults is how to determine which tasks and situations lead to eustress versus distress, and particularly, chronic distress. The same task — for instance, giving an oral presentation in front of a large audience as part of a class project — may spark eustress in some kids and distress in others. Pressure to perform academically may seem motivating in the short term, but over time, left unchecked, can lead to chronic distress. Navigating stress and its nuances requires ongoing communication between parents, educators, and students to understand each situation and make the best possible decisions that support balance, growth, and overall well-being for kids. This focus is at the core of the Challenge Success mission: helping schools, families, and communities reduce unhealthy forms of stress for students, and promoting positive practices and research-based support strategies. When we work together, our children and teens do more than cope – they thrive.