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World Journal of Medical Sciences 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
© IDOSI Publications, 2014
Corresponding Author: R.V. Kupriyanov, M.A. Sholokhov Moscow University for Humanities,
Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, 16-18, Verkhnjaja radischevskaya St., Moscow 109240,
The Eustress Concept: Problems and Outlooks
Roman Kupriyanov and Renad Zhdanov
1, 2 1, 3
M.A. Sholokhov Moscow University for Humanities, Russian Institute for Advanced Studies,
16-18, Verkhnjaja radischevskaya St., Moscow 109240, Russian Federation
Kazan National Research Technological University, Kazan 420015, Russian Federation
Kazan Federal University, Kazan 420008, Russian Federation
Abstract: The concepts of eustress and allostasis are discussed in terms of their inter-relationship and
penetration. Historical research on general adaptation syndrome is examined from the standpoint of an
interdisciplinary approach in which the effects of stress are manifested in four areas: physiology, behaviour,
subjective experience and cognitive functions. This article provides a review of eustress concepts. The key
problems and contradictions of eustress concept are disclosed and discussed. The authors propose an
approach to eustress from the position of the adaptation process. The definition of eustress is substantiated
as a form of stress after which a person’s adaptive capacity increases. The ways and mechanisms of eustress
are described. The role of eustress is reviewed in the context of allostasis, a form of adaptation more complex
than homeostasis. The authors propose the working hypothesis of allostatic states to describe the phenomena
of distress and eustress.
Key words: Stress Adaptation Eustress Allostasis Allostatic Load Adaptive Capacity
INTRODUCTION to eustress. Similarly, a search for synonyms of eustress,
Nowadays stress is an attribute of modern life. 19 references, respectively. In addition to these figures,
This problem hasn’t professional, territorial and cultural M. Le Fevre points to the semantic shift from
boundaries [1-5]. Although some researchers emphasize understanding the term “stress” as an inevitable
the adaptive features of stress, the destructive effects of consequence of life to its contemporary use as a
stress (“distress”) are far better discussed in scientific synonym for distress . The purpose of this article is to
literature. Hans Selye (1936) speaks of the dual nature of differentiate eustress from other types of stress and to
general adaptation syndrome (GAS), which can both examine its contribution to the process of adaptation
cause physical illness and death and improve the body's and improvements in health.
resistance to unfavourable conditions [6, 7]. In 1976,
Selye introduced the concepts of eustress and distress Conception of Eustress: According to Nelson and
to indicate different types of responses to stress. Simmons, the conception of eustress is incomplete .
The physiological mechanism of stress progress that he Indeed, eustress is an insufficiently explored
described only explains the negative effects of adaptation phenomenon. As the examination of the PubMed
syndrome. As some authors assert, the theme of eustress database illustrates, very few analyses of stress attend to
is simply ignored in the literature [8, 9]. According to the concept of eustress. It is our position that the lack
S. Levine, the number of references to term “stress” in the of research on eustress is due to a lack of clear
PubMed system in 2005 was 209,744 . In 2014, criteria for differentiating this type of stress from
there are already 563,117 such references. There are others. Furthermore, the absence of such criteria is
83,779 references devoted to distress and only 51 devoted a consequence of insufficient development of the
“positive stress” and “good stress,” yields 461 and
World J. Med. Sci., 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
conceptual basis of eustress. Under these circumstances, to stress . They consider eustress and distress as two
there is significant variation among scientists in their different reactions to the stress, which can occur
understanding of eustress. For example, in some models simultaneously . Lundberg and Frankenhauser also
of stress, eustress is included only as a lack of believe that eustress (positive emotions) and distress
negative effects. Milsum considers eustress as an ideal (negative emotions) can occur in response to the
condition of the well-functioning homeostatic system . requirements of the environment, either separately or in
The concept of eustress was introduced into the combination . These variants differ from one another
scientific lexicon by H. Selye, who is not known to be in the ratio of catecholamines and cortisol found in the
precise with terminology. Selye’s scholarly works blood. The researchers concluded that the
themselves further confound an understanding of the neuroendocrine responses to the psychosocial situation
phenomenon of eustress. At times, he used the terms are determined by the individual’s cognitive evaluation
“eustress” and “distress” to distinguish different types of of the situation and by the emotional impact of the
stress and in other instances, he identified them as stimuli stimuli but not by their objective characteristics .
that cause stress . Lovallo  also believes that the influence of stress is
Today, there are two dominant approaches to largely dependent on how a person interprets the
understanding eustress. The first is connected to H. situation. He asserts that two situations in which the
Selye’s work. In his formulation of general adaptation physical load is identical may have different
syndrome, Selye emphasised the adaptive nature of the consequences for the person based on the interpretation
reaction to the stress [6, 7]. The terms "distress" and of the situation and the accompanying emotions.
"eustress" were subsequently introduced by Selye in Lazarus and Folkman noted that the immediate
1974 to distinguish the non-adaptive and adaptive psychological consequences of the evaluation of the
effects to stress reactions . Quick et al. considered situation are revealed in positive or negative feelings .
eustress in a similar light . They identified eustress as Thus, a person may react to any stressor with both
"healthy, positive, constructive results of stressful positive and negative feelings and judgments .
events and stress response." Thus, eustress is Associating eustress with emotional state or
considered the result of the body's response to a stressor. cognitive evaluation alone presents the risk of stepping
Lazarus proposed a second approach to on "shaky ground" and losing direction in the search to
understanding eustress in his stress model. From this identify this phenomenon. This is because emotions and
point of view, eustress is a positive cognitive response to cognitive evaluation of a situation can change during the
a stressor. This type of stress is associated with positive period in which the stressor is acting upon the individual.
feelings and a healthy physical state, while distress is a In such cases, it would be difficult to distinguish eustress
severe stress associated with negative feelings and and distress from one another. In terms of an integral
physical impairments . Harris correlates eustress with approach to human physiology, we cannot speak of two
a joyful response to a stressor  and Edwards and or more reactions occurring simultaneously.
Cooper identified eustress as a positive discrepancy Physiologically, there is only one reaction in the
between perception and wishes (provided the organism, although the ratio and number of structural
discrepancy bears direct relation to the individual) . elements involved in the reaction may differ. Thus, we
According to Le Fevre et al. , the main factor that may speak of a variety of reactions to a stressor. An
determines whether a stressor will cause distress or example of such an interpretation of eustress is a theory
eustress is the perception and interpretation of the of nonspecific adaptive reactions of the organism (NARO)
situation by the individual. Le Fevre believes that a [21-24]. According to Garkavi et al. , adaptations to
particular stress is distinguished as eustress or distress strong stimuli vary significantly from adaptations to weak
not only based on the individual’s perception of the stimuli. Adaptation to a strong stimulus occurs not only
intensity of the stimulus (stressor) but also based on the through over-stimulation of some subsystems of the
perception of its other characteristics, such as its source, organism but also through inhibition of the activity of
duration, controllability and desirability . others, known as defensive subsystems. According to
There is an opinion that eustress and distress may these authors, this is a classic reaction to stress.
occur simultaneously. For example, Nelson and Simmons While adapting to a weak stimulus, neither inhibition nor
also supposed that eustress and distress represent significant stimulation of protective subsystems takes
separate and independent aspects of the overall response place. This adaptive reaction, which Garkavi et al called
World J. Med. Sci., 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
Fig. 1: Homeostasis and eustress. X - some biological property of an organism; X , X - limits of adaptive capabilities
0 min max
of an organism.
“the training reaction,” increases the activity of protective activate all of its resources to survive in adverse
subsystems and causes the organism to become resistant conditions. Therefore, most anti-stress programs aimed at
to harmful actions . These authors also identified the decreasing stress levels are misguided; they intend to
commonly occurring “activation reaction,” which occurs reduce stress levels rather than to control the stress
in response to the action of medium-strength stimuli of response by converting the response to a eustress
varying quality. This reaction is characterised by a rapid, reaction. Several studies confirm the viability of this point.
though not excessive, increase in activity of the A. Sih reviewed theories claiming that “early stress”
protective and regulatory subsystems of the organism. prepares the body for more effective resistance to
If we consider this theory in terms of eustress, stressors in later life . It has been argued that “early
both training and activation reactions would be stress” may play an adaptive role, as “vaccination against
classified as eustress. Identification of different types of stress,” in training animals to endure environmental
non-specific adaptive reactions enabled the authors to conditions after birth [27, 28]. According this argument,
suggest the technique of “activational therapy” . there is a bell-shaped correlation between the level of
Their basic idea is to provoke the necessary adaptive stress at an early age and subsequent resilience [29-31].
immune reaction in human organisms through controlled
external action or medicine (i.e., by stressor). For positive Ways to Create Eustress: Although Selye described
therapeutic effects, it is possible to use two non-specific eustress as a positive effect of uncertain physiological
reactions. The training reaction is necessary to induce responses and strain, neither he nor his adherents have
prophylaxis of diseases and the activation reaction described how this positive effect arises.
should be used for therapeutic treatment of diseases . One of the most common points of view on the cause
Distress is a type of stress that leads to deterioration of eustress is the intensity of the stressor’s impact,
of the adaptive capabilities of the organism and eustress a position exemplified by the theory of NARO [22, 23].
is a stress that initiates an increase in adaptive Other theories assert a nonlinear relationship between
capabilities . This approach makes it possible eustress and the intensity of the impact, as often
to clearly identify the phenomenon of eustress, illustrated in the form of a U-shaped diagram, where the
affording new opportunities for its study. relationship exists between the intensity of stress
Graphically, eustress can be shown in the form of and health or productivity [32-35]. In the latter case,
increased limitations of the organism’s adaptive the researchers rely on the law of Yerkes-Dodson .
capabilities (Fig. 1). Adaptation and stress phenomena Within a quantitative approach, the phenomenon of
have a causal relationship wherein the onset of stress hormesis may also be considered. “Hormesis describes
initiates adaptation. The evolutionary history of all life any process in which a cell, organism, or group of
forms may be treated as a history of organisms combating organisms exhibits a biphasic response to an exposure of
stressors, thus bringing about destruction (distress) increasing amounts of a substance or condition (e.g.,
and gains (eustress). When using the term "eustress", chemical, sensory stimulus, or metabolic stress).
we want to emphasise the positive, constructive value of Typically, low dose exposures elicit a stimulation or
the stress response. The initial purpose of the body’s beneficial response, whereas high doses cause inhibition
reaction to stress and stressors is to overcome or toxicity” . For example, there is evidence that low
the adverse impact of the external environment. doses of radiation stimulate cell proliferation .
Nature created a mechanism that allows the body to Furthermore, caloric restriction prolongs life in a variety of
World J. Med. Sci., 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
organisms from yeast to mammals, protecting them from and W. Cannon [53, 54]. It is understood as a more
deterioration of biological function . From the data complex form of adaptation than homeostasis.
discussed above, it may be concluded that the intensity According to the latter theory, environmental or life
of exposure to stressors is a key factor in determining the events cause a stress reaction, which enables the
development of either the eustress or the distress organism to maintain homeostatic balance; however,
response. once the stimulus has disappeared, an organism returns
Intensity of exposure to a stressor depends not only to its original state, although it may not restore balance
on the power of the stressor impact but also on the at the original level. In such a situation, a human organism
duration of exposure to the stressor. The duration of the tries to restore balance at another level, causing a new
stressor impact may also play a significant role in the stable state, rather than returning to the former. This new
development of various effects of stress. According to level is called the “allostatic state” . Expanding on this
S. McEwen , the short-term impact of major hormonal concept is the notion of “allostatic load,” which refers to
mediators of stress is essential for adaptation, the price the body pays for being forced to adapt to
homeostasis maintenance, and survival. However, unfavourable psychosocial or physical situations.
at longer time intervals, the stressor impact can Physiologically, it signals either the presence of
accelerate the pathogenic process, which can be excessively strong stress or an ineffective reaction of the
considered a variant of distress. hormonal system to the stressor .
In addition to studying the characteristics of the Allostasis occurs when the homeostatic balance is
stimuli that cause eustress, there are a number of studies upset, whether due to damage or a change in the
aimed at identifying the internal conditions and parameters of the human organism’s functioning (e.g.,
factors that are beneficial to people in stressful in the normal growth and development of the organism).
situations. In the field of psychology, several studies A cause and indicator of allostasis is intense activation of
on the relationship between psychological traits and regulatory systems, which manifests itself in excessive
health and wellbeing have been carried out. Some of production of cortisol and adrenaline. Allostasis is further
the traits investigated include positive affect , characterised by intensive and unstable functioning,
optimism , self-determination  and hope . including behavioural and psychological activity,
Other researchers have focused on individuals who attributed to an emergence of new neuro-humoural
remain healthy in stressful situations . Studies have regulation mechanisms and new forms of behaviour that
shown that individuals who face distressing situations are more adaptive to new conditions. As a norm, an
can achieve positive results and traits such as hardiness allostatic state is in flux until homeostasis is achieved at
may facilitate this process. In such cases, hardiness is another level, within new parameters of the internal
defined as an aspiration to discern the meaning of events, environment, due to the formation of new neuroendocrine
especially those that cause stress. Other traits cited as regulation systems and the development of new adaptive
promoting health and wellbeing include self-reliance , behaviours and strategies. However, if an allostatic load
the character  and sense of vocation . It was also is too high, or if the environment is constantly changing
shown that eustress is connected with total life and unpredictable, it is impossible to achieve balance
satisfaction . because the emerging structural elements of a regulatory
Eustress and a Theory of Allostasis: Approximately system and conditions for pathological changes in an
25 years ago, a new term, "allostasis" (from the Greek organism appear, including those that are behavioural.
words allos, meaning “other, another” and stasis, Allostasis theory can be applied to explain the
meaning “state, stability”), was proposed, which literally eustress phenomenon. For example, Li G. introduces the
means "to remain stable, changing” or “remaining stable concept of "allostatic buffering capacity” (ABC), which,
by being variable” . Authors working within this according to the author, supports dynamic stability .
paradigm understand allostasis as a process by which an This capacity is equal to the change in physiological
organism maintains its internal environment within parameters from normal to peak level (i.e., the maximal
parameters necessary for survival by changing its state possible change). In terms of ABC, eustress is regarded
and its behaviour [40, 50-52]. as an increase in the buffer zone that results in health
The notion of allostasis broadens and supplements improvement and reduction in morbidity and mortality
the concept of homeostasis, introduced by C. Bernard .
system have no time to develop into a new effective
World J. Med. Sci., 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
Fig. 2:The model of allostatic states: a, b, c, d, e - allostatic states; c - the current state of homeostasis. Transfer from
allostatic state c to b or a one might be considered as eustress; transfer from allostatic state c to d or e one might
be considered as distress development.
Eustress harmoniously fits into the modern theory of Although most researchers attend to problems of
allostasis  in that the latter concept suggests the pathogenesis, stress is a protective reaction that helps
presence of many states. These states can, in our view, the organism to survive in difficult conditions and
be ordered according to the allostatic load on the body environments and it is the positive, constructive role of
(Fig. 2). Therefore, within the framework of allostasis, stress that very few have studied. It is necessary to move
we can consider the possibility of moving not only with beyond the pathological model and turn to positive
high levels of allostatic load but also with reduced levels conceptions and cognitive research that can elucidate the
of allostatic load. This allows use of the concept of mechanisms of eustress. From a perception of stress as a
eustress to explain the positive effects of stress on reaction to strong negative environmental impacts,
the body, such as increasing resistance to adverse researchers now recognise distinctions within the stress
factors, survival in extreme conditions, etc. We propose phenomenon, seeing distress as a non-specific basis of
a schematic model of the "allostatic state," which takes disease and eustress as a favourable factor affecting
into account the existence of stable physiological states health and longevity. We propose to consider eustress as
of the body that differ in terms of allostatic load. an adaptation process. In this context, eustress is a type
The transition from one state to another is possible if of stress that increases an organism’s adaptive capacity.
certain external actions or mobilisation of internal reserves We further propose a working hypothesis of allostatic
occurs. We are not proposing the existence of certain states to describe the phenomena of distress and
predefined conditions in which the body can endure eustress. Eustress results in the transition of the organism
stress influences because individual characteristics to a lower level of allostatic load and distress is the
associated with the levels and states in each case may be transition to a higher. Although some well-known models
different. Thus, in this model, eustress is the transition of of stress provide the grounds for eustress mechanisms,
the system to a lower level of allostatic load and distress experimental studies are necessary to confirm the model
is the transition to a higher level (Fig. 2). It can be argued of eustress.
that the concept of allostasis provides a new viewpoint This work was supported by a 3-month grant Program
on the phenomenon of eustress and new opportunities from the Russian Institute of for Advanced Studies at
for understanding and investigating it. Our approach Sholokhov Moscow State University for the Humanities,
facilitates a clear identification of the phenomenon of June-August 2013.
eustress, thus opening new possibilities for its further
CONCLUSIONS The work was supported by grants of Russian
This article discusses the inter-relationship and and Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan Republic No
penetration of the concepts of eustress and allostasis. 12-03-97089reg; A.von Humboldt Foundation No
Despite the proliferation of research on stress, it tends to V–8121/RUS/1032332 ( Bonn, Germany), and of Russian
be studied in an irregular and often one-sided manner. Ministry of Education and Science, project part 2013-2014.
Foundation for Basic Research, regional Volga region
World J. Med. Sci., 11 (2): 179-185, 2014
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