So happy it hurts: the odd ailment of eustress

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I’ll be careful not to complain too much in an article about stress, because I know there are many out there who are leagues ahead of me when it comes to stressing out. They are the kind of people who, like myself, have a tendency to take on a lot of things at once and turn themselves into pressure cookers. But unlike me, some stress-aholics turn that pressure dial up so high that diamonds begin to form in their abdomens.

It’s important however, to remember that it’s not a competition. Regardless of how much or how little stress I regularly experience, I’ve only got my own life to draw from so here it goes.

This semester started out just like any other, with a full course load, a healthy dose of work and a bit of dating around. That translated to lots of school work, lots of work-work and a concerted effort to be social. That’s when the unthinkable happened. A girl I had been casually dating suddenly became the love of my life, and this being Utah after all, we’ve decided to get married. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, but we just…know.

For the longest time I’ve thought that happy things cancel out stressful things. As a working student, I experience my share of stress. And here I am, approaching the happiest moment in my life and I feel awesome—but somehow still stressed out. How?

For one, my theory was wrong: good things don’t always negate the bad and vice versa. There’s plenty of room in one heart for a whole circus of emotions. But I was also overlooking the fact that good things can cause stress too. That doesn’t mean they don’t make you happy, that just means that big, happy things can also add to your emotional load. It’s called “eustress”, stress that arises out of positive things that are nevertheless challenging or particularly novel, as compared with “distress” which comes from perceived threats to one’s wellbeing. The thing is, the body doesn’t differentiate between the two.

Just as it is with the physical, there’s only so much energy you can devote to mental and emotional things. With stress of any kind coming into your life, you have a natural limit of how much you can take before the cracks start to show. Cramming a big happy thing into your life won’t necessarily crowd out the tough things. Sometimes it just causes more pressure.

So what does this mean to your average Joe (a.k.a. me)? Does it mean that I should avoid these happy new developments in my life for fear that the cumulative pressure of all the good things and all the bad things will break me? Absolutely not. The important thing is to be aware of the stressors in your life, both good and bad. You aren’t always able to choose what stresses you, but you should know what does and find ways to relieve that stress when you need to. Perhaps easier said than done, but a little mindfulness, relaxation and reduction of negative stressors can go a long way towards lowering your cognitive load. I can’t stress that point enough.