Eustress - 4 Emotions for Mental Health Awareness (Part 1 of 4)

May 02, 2024

4 Emotions to Focus on During Mental Health Awareness Month (Part 1 of 4).

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month! Time to turn our attention to mental health and check in with ourselves. It’s a great time to ask: How am I doing? What have I been feeling lately? How can I course correct to live a little more authentically this month?

This May, I invite you to center around acceptance and surrender by focusing on four authentic emotions:

  • Eustress (vs. Distress)
  • Injustice (vs. Anger/Hatred)
  • Humility (vs. Worthlessness)
  • Belonging (vs. Fitting In)

In this article, I will talk about the first emotion: Eustress. 

Eustress and Injustice are authentic emotions that deal with accepting our emotions as helpful responses.

The authentic emotions of eustress and injustice are both tied to counterfeit emotions that we generally view as “bad” or “negative”: distress(stress) and anger/hatred. Stress and anger are sometimes considered “bad emotions.” They aren’t bad. They are simply messengers telling us something isn’t right in our lives. Emotions help us by either taking us where we want to go or bringing a message that we are in the wrong place. The authentic emotions serve as avenues for progress and peace. And the less helpful ones relay messages that we can learn from. Some of the counterfeit emotions try to turn from messengers to dictators. When we let them become dictators instead of simple messengers, they can have destructive consequences. When we accept our emotions, even the counterfeits, and pay attention to the message they are delivering they can be healthy too. The message they generally deliver is that something needs to change in your life, actions, or circumstances. Authentic emotions take us where we want to go.

Eustress

The go-to reply when someone tells us that they are stressed is often “It’s okay. Don’t be stressed” or “Just calm down.” It would be awesome if we could just stop being stressed, but unfortunately, that isn’t how it works. Stress is an “aroused” emotion that takes time to calm down, and when we are still in the midst of the pressure, it is almost impossible to calm it down. The good news is that we don’t have to! We can convert the distress into eustress; an adjacent emotion that is also an aroused emotion and more helpful in everyday life. Eustress is that feeling of excitement. It is the adrenaline and blood-pumping thrill we feel on roller coasters or jumping out of an airplane and parachuting to the ground. For some of us, skydiving may seem insane. How is it even possible for a person to enjoy jumping out of a plane? Why doesn’t their fear response stop them? They should be fighting and flighting right now! As it turns out, there is another option: convert distress to eustress. Turn fight or flight into Thrill and Skill.

For decades science insisted that stress is bad for our health, that it makes us sick and increases our risk for heart disease. More studies were done and we started to discover that this theory wasn’t quite true. It isn’t the stress making people sick and giving people heart disease, it is their belief about stress. Studies found that the people who believe that stress is harmful are the ones who are negatively affected by it. They are the ones who are more at risk for heart disease. The people who accept stress and don’t think of it as harmful have none of the negative effects associated with stress. 

For years, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, had believed and even taught that stress is unhealthy before she found out the true nature of stress. In her TedTalk, McGonigal says, “When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” When we stop viewing our stress response as a sign that we aren’t managing very well under pressure and start viewing it as helpful, something incredible happens: our biophysical response changes. 

“That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, it’s no problem; it’s getting more oxygen to your brain,” McGonigal says. She explains that when distressed, and when viewing stress as unhealthy, the blood vessels constrict creating an unhealthy cardiovascular profile. But when our perspective changes and we start viewing stress as a helpful response that is preparing us to meet the pressure-filled challenge, our heart still pounds, but our blood vessels stay relaxed and dilated– which is a response much like what happens when we feel joy and courage. “How you think about stress matters.” When we change how we think about stress, we convert distress (anxiety) into eustress (excitement). Turn Fight or Flight into Thrill and Skill.

So how do we get out of Fight or Flight and change it to Thrill and Skill? It starts with changing the way we speak about stress. When faced with pressure, I try to stay away from saying things like “I’m nervous” and “I’m anxious” and replace these phrases with things like “I’m excited”, “I’m pumped”, and “I’m ready to do this”.

Dr. Allison Woods Brookes of Harvard University shared that when we are feeling anxious, we “should try to focus on the potential opportunities. It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement.” 

The advice we usually get when feeling distressed is “take deep breaths” and “stay calm”. It’s pretty difficult to calm down when feeling a lot of distress. Because stress is an emotion with a high arousal (high energy) and calmness has a low arousal, it’s difficult to turn stress into calm.

The case is different with excitement.

The physiological response of anxiety (distress) is very similar to excitement (eustress). They are both high arousal emotions, so we can actually reinterpret the physical responses of anxiety as excitement. When we feel anxious, say “I’m excited” and see what happens. Our brains are powerful. They respond to our thoughts. 

Emotions are messengers, either taking us where we want to go or bringing a message that we are in the wrong place. When we accept our emotions, even the counterfeits, and pay attention to the messages they are delivering we can turn “bad emotions” into wisdom and follow the authentic emotions to peace. This Mental Health Awareness month, accept your emotions for what they are: messengers.

BE A BETTER HUMAN

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