Eustress vs distress - which is lockdown driving in you?

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

What is causing this thing we call 'stress' and what do we mean when we refer to 'stress'? There are 3 different types of stress.  Eustress, distress and traumatic stress. 

Stress thats actually good for us is known as eustress or positive stress and makes us feel good, it tends to be short term and task focused and supports our wellbeing. Experiences that drive eustress help us to achieve states of flow which enhance our wellbeing, engagement and performance.

According to author and scientist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where you feel your best and perform your best.” It is characterized by “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies…Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Brains in flow are in an enhanced mental state and enjoying a rush of neuro-chemicals including endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, anandamide and dopamine. Even if you’re not a neurobiologist, you’ve probably heard of some of these chemicals associated with greater pleasure, better performance and expanded creative problem solving. In flow, our brains are in a state of heightened awareness and attention toward a clear goal. Conscious thoughts are reduced. This is referred to as “efficiency exchange.” We’re literally exchanging the energy we typically spend on conscious thought (or even un-conscious thought) for attention to a goal.

In addition, if you can accomplish flow, it’s worth the effort. McKinsey conducted a 10-year study with 5,000 executives in which they reported being five times more productive when they were in flow.

Then there's the type of stress that isn't good for us known as distress or negative stress, which tends to accumulate over time and is caused by persistent and excessive workplace pressure and home life challenges, lack of support and associated behaviours like sedentary habits, poor diet and poor rest/sleep and/or excessive alcohol intake. All of which can result in a bottle neck of stress toxins building up in the systems.

And finally there's stress that is caused by trauma known as traumatic stress (or t-stress).  Everyone has experienced trauma in life to varying degree's. Given a certain set of conditions the trauma people endure can become encoded in our amygdala, a part of the brain that stores trauma. People who've experienced one or more trauma's in life are at risk of being left with unresolved trauma emotions, which can generate excessive unconscious mind chatter (emotion and thought loops) which can flare up when enduring negative stress/distress.

So in short we would serve ourselves better if we increased our flow experiences to increase the eustress in our day and thereby reduce the impact of distress and t-stress

There are 2 types of situations that trigger flow more effectively than others:

  1. Challenge and risk. “Situations of intense challenge or high risk are classic conditions for flow,” says Doris. Traditional examples of these may come through activities like rock climbing or alpine skiing, but today’s high-risk environment may create the conditions for flow as well.

  2. Complexity and ambiguity. Doris says circumstances of uncertainty are also ripe for flow opportunities. In fact, a VUCA world—one in which there is volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—one very similar to today’s turbulence—may be just right to motivate a flow state.

So, how can you enhance the likelihood of getting into a flow state?

Pay attention to the basics. Doris recommends ensuring you’re getting enough sleep, eating in a healthy way, in a good state of mind (for example, feeling gratitude), mood and ensuring fitness. You can use the lifestyle pillars in the neuroselfcare app which can be downloaded for free on IOS and android (click

Set clear goals and focus on them. An important condition for flow is having well-defined goals. Clarity in your objectives will facilitate the concentration and focus you need. Identify your key stone goal - the one that is true to your core values, meaning and purpose, one that you're truly hungry to achieve, the one that connects all goals together somehow and helps to naturally drive your motivation. Having a key stone goal provide some degree of stability in a VUCA world.

Obtain critique. Another hallmark of flow is immediate or frequent feedback. Ensure you’re getting reactions to your work either by self observation and reflection or based on input from a colleague or leader. Furthermore organizations that take feedback seriously are finding staff engagement is going through the roof. Engagement Multiplier e.g. is promoting quarterly cycles of surveys with great success (to find out more click on 'engagement multiplier' in this link

Challenge yourself and match your skills. Reach for accomplishments that stretch your skills. If things are too easy or too difficult, your motivation will wane. But if you can expend effort on things that are difficult but achievable, you’ll be stimulated to succeed.

Work together. Flow is also possible to experience as a team and a core ingredient of staff engagement. You increase the likelihood of experiencing flow as a group by ensuring you have shared goals and all the team members are doing plenty of active listening. They know each others styles of working and are able to flex to eek out the best of every interaction. And rather than combative behavior, team members should focus on constructive collaboration and ensure participation is equal and not ego-based. Finally, teams are more likely to achieve flow when they have frequent and regular contact and when they share risk on key decisions.

All of these 5 areas are indeed central to optimizing flow as well as staff engagement and companies that promote these have a unique advantage: not only are they turning business into a wellbeing tool they're also turning up the volume on their performance. The budget they did have for sickness and absence can now be redeployed to building resilience, wellbeing and performance.

Whether you’re achieving flow as an individual or as a team, you’ll know you’re in a flow state when you lose a sense of yourself, a sense of time and a sense of physical need. In the strange new world of quarantine, remote working and new challenges at every turn, finding a flow state may be the silver lining. Harness the uncertainty and leverage the risk you’re facing to seek flow in unexpected ways.


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