Our Goals: Eustress and Distress

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on May 22, 2009

When are goals healthy and when are goals destructive?

What is a good challenge and what is a negative one?

Where do we draw the line?

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Shelly brought up this thought-provoking question that I thought I would share with you all:

“My problem is staying in a place where I am proud of myself (and keeping up the good work) without having to find something more to improve.

I try to find good ways to channel my perfectionism (right now I’m working on eating more veggies b/c that is a healthy goal to focus on) but its hard not to eye my stomach and wonder how hard it would be to get a 6 pack.

This is not good for me b/c a) I didn’t want a 6 pack a couple months ago, b) It would be VERY hard for me to get a 6 pack- I am an apple shaped girl, and I suspect I’d have to sink below my current (ideal) weight to get it- and I know, rationally, that it is not worth being an unhealthy weight, and c) After I got the 6 pack, what crazy goal would I set for myself next?

I know it would be something- there is always something more for me to do.
I’d really like to break out of that cycle and just be happy maintaining the good state of health and fitness that I am currently in.”

This is such a great question, isn’t it? I think many of us, myself included, struggle with this question a lot.

How do we know when a self-improvement scheme has gone too far?

Whenever I ask myself this type of question, I always think back to the psychological theory by Hans Selye (1975).

Hans Selye came up with two different terms for stress: Eustress and Distress. 

1. Eustress is defined as a positive type of stress and enhances our functioning. It is a healthy form of stress that gives us positive feelings and makes us feel good about ourselves. The prefix of the word (‘eu’) is greek and stands for ‘well’ or ‘good’.

An example of Eustress, would be a challenging work assignment that is perceived to be neither too difficult nor too easy. Another example, would be a strength training workout.

Some more examples of Eustress are:
A) Thrill experienced while watching a horror movie
B) Excitement of winning a race
C) Accomplishing a challenge
D) Joy experienced on a roller-coaster ride
E) Happiness felt on the birth of a baby
F) Excitement while getting wedded


2. Distress on the other hand, is a negative form of stress– the one that we most commonly associate with stress. It is defined as persistent stress that does not resolve itself despite our best efforts. This form of stress can be chronic and debilitating to the individual. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and withdrawal which are all symptoms of perceived defeat.

An example of distress, might be an injury that removes us from exercise, the death of a loved one, not getting into the college of our choice, or loosing our job.

These are common things that we might associate with negative stress.

However, depending on our outlook, many of the goals and challenges that we set for ourselves may start out innocently as Eustress and then over time may turn into distress.

For example, at the beginning of 2009, I set the lofty goal of running 1,000 miles this year. Little did I know that just two weeks into January 2009, I would get a nasty groin injury that put me out of exercise for 2 whole months. The goal to run 1,000 miles was initially a form of Eustress because I was excited about it and it served as a positive form of motivation for me during the first couple weeks of January. However, once I was injured, the goal served as a huge form of distress that hovered over my head like a dark storm cloud. As each week ticked by that I was not logging miles, the stress of my goal got worse and worse.

At this point, my goal had clearly become something negative in my life. Because of this, I had to re-evaluate my goal. It turned out that I came to terms with my injury and I decided that it was more than ok to change my goal. I realized that running 1,000 miles in a year was not going to happen and was likely an impossible goal given my tendency for injuries!

Once I re-evaluated my goal I felt so much better and I felt free. Once I got back into running, I experienced much more Eustress. For example, I am a bit anxious and very excited to see if I will be able to run the 10km race on June 14th. I am motivated and happy about my goal. That is how I know it is a healthy one, and not something that is bringing me down.

My advice to you Shelly, is to ask yourself the same types of questions. Are the goals that you set for yourself positive and motivating? My guess is that the goals you place on yourself are starting to become a form of distress in your life.

If the behaviour in question is affecting any area of your life in a negative way, then it probably needs to change!

In Shelly’s comment, I can sense her unease and pressure with the goals that she sets for herself. I think anytime that you feel pressured by your goals in a negative way, it is time to re-evaluate them. To me it doesn’t seem like you are able to just ‘enjoy’ and appreciate your health for what it is today. I think anytime that you set a goal for yourself, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

1. Why are you setting this goal?
2. Why do you feel the need to change?

3. What will happen if you don’t reach your goal?

4. What would happen if you didn’t try this goal and you simply carried on with your life?

5. If you achieve this goal, how will it change your life? How will it change who you are as a person?

I think these questions may help you reflect a bit more on why you are constantly wanting to improve yourself.

With that being said, I believe that self-improvement challenges can be a good thing- IF they are in moderation, not excessive, and they are not causing you stress!

Only you can know that for yourself!

Today’s Question: Are you constantly setting goals for yourself? Has it ever become a negative thing in your life? Do your goals tend to be ‘eustress’ or ‘distress;’ in your life?

I have A LOT more to say on this topic so there will be multiple posts!


“Happiness is not a brilliant climax to years of grim struggle and anxiety. It is a long succession of little decisions simply to be happy in the moment.”

~D Walters

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Katherine May 22, 2009 at 1:33 pm

I am definitely a goal-oriented person and it’s gotten me into trouble in the past! My husband is always reminding me, “Enjoy the process. Relish the present.” I’m the kind of person who seizes a new challenge, tends to fixate on it until it’s complete, and then jumps on to the next one. The problem is, the enjoyment I get from accomplishing a goal is diminished by both the stress I felt while obtaining that goal, and the anxiety of either maintaining it (in the case of weight loss) or of setting a new goal. I always used to be worried that if I didn’t have a challenge, I’d become complacent or lazy, but I’m working every day to remind myself that I’m a good person already and I should enjoy that while finding new, healthy ways of challenging myself!

Another great post, Angela, thanks so much for encouraging me to look inside myself!


Sarah May 22, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I love having goals and challenges, its honestly one of the things that keeps me motivated to stay healthy and fit. This year I was able to realize that running long distances is just not in the cards for me. I had previously done so last year but seeing the toll it takes on my body, I set my goals and challenges to just be the best 5k runner I can be!

If I had tried to continue pushing myself beyond what are appropriate limits for me, I would’ve pushed right into distress.

I’m always up for challenges. Right now I am observing and slowly (I repeat sloooowly) cutting back on caffeine.

Great post, can’t wait to see more!


Jenny May 22, 2009 at 1:39 pm

THis is SUCH a great post Angela. Thank you for bringing such a relevant topic to the table. I definitely see where I allow goals in my life to cease to be enjoyable and become a burden. I see it in my exercising, my school work, and most recently in my relationships. I’m always striving for the “best” there’s always more I can do.

This is a good reminder that being content and happy in the flow of everyday life is so important, I am definitely going to start taking a step back and assessing what my true goals and motivations are more often. :)


Heather May 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Those are great questions to ask ourselves.

I think it’s definitely important to set goals and have something to work towards in life, if only to give yourself purpose and direction. But those goals should never turn negative and become your sole meaning in life. Goals need to be something to strive for, but not obsess over. It’s important to take the random things that life throws and you and work with them to alter your life and develop new goals and ideas. Part of the fun in living is exploring all your options and finding new, random opportunities to strive for.


Edan May 22, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Yeah, I struggle with positive goals that turn into negative stress. I try to go with small goals as far as health is concerned, like “no junk food today”, or “more vegetables this week”. But sometimes I do more numeric goals- this winter it was 4 miles of running, 5 days a week.
Sometimes, it really helps me to keep focused, but some of my running goals (running can turn into a numbers game really easily) can get me down rather than make me feel positive, especially when I get sick, injured, or just plain bored.
Now that the weather is nice, my goal is just to run outside five days a week. I don’t wear a monitor so I don’t know how far I’ve run or how fast I’ve gone, and it’s really forced me to pay more attention to how I actually feel during a run, which is a nice contrast from the winter I spent on the treadmill staring at the numbers.
Very thought provoking post! : )


Anna May 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

AHH! Goals! This is a favorite topic of mine and I could talk for a LONG time about it. I did a 3-part series of posts on goal-setting about a month or so ago- I’d link to them, but I don’t know if your comment settings reject links in the comment form… just search “goal setting” on my blog and they’ll pop up.

Anyways, this is an topic which I feel pretty strongly about. I definitely understand what you are saying about the downsides of goal-setting. It can have some pretty negative effects if it goes awry. Although in my experiences, goal-setting has been a largely positive force in my life. I attribute this to two factors:

1. The environment in which I set and shared my goals was non-competitive and non-judgmental. As in, there was no shame if I failed to achieve a given goal, and I was counseled on how to set manageable goals.

2. My personality- I’m not a type-A, nor am I very competitive, so I’m usually not too hard on myself if I don’t achieve certain things.

As I see it, in order for a goal to be a healthy and successful one, it must come FROM you and be FOR you. In my experience, goal setting works the best when you are not motivated out of feelings of inadequacy, competitiveness, or fear. Easier said than done, I know, but I think you are spot-on with your list of questions to ask yourself about your goals.

When I look back on the most significant goal I have ever set and achieved (completing a half marathon), I realize that my endeavors were successful because I took a light-hearted, almost playful approach to it. Sure, I formulated a 3-month training plan and stuck to it, but the key for me was not to hype it up too much for myself. I approached it as the novelty that it was- I am not genetically inclined to be a runner at all, so I embraced it and had FUN seeing if I could defy my genetics (so to speak) if that makes any sense at all. The fact that I was attempting something so out of my element almost made it easier- it made it easier to accept any possible failure because hey, this isn’t my bread and butter. Does that sound totally nutty? Haha.

Ok this is getting excessively long, but again, GREAT post.


Amanda May 22, 2009 at 2:04 pm

GREAT topic that absolutely resonates with me!!

I am a very type A, self-motivated person. I always believe that I should do my best. I run into a problem when it comes to exercise, because there always seems to be something “more” that I can do. Sure, I can add a few more miles to my run, I can skip my rest day, etc. etc. BUT it comes to a point where the exercise isn’t really that enjoyable and it just feels like something I HAVE to do. That said, rest days make me feel guilty because I “could” be out there exercising.

Awesome post.


Fitzalan May 22, 2009 at 2:08 pm

All I do is set goals I feel like. I am constantly setting goals, some small, some large, but it is an on-going habit. And not one I necessarily love. This is because I have to keep picking a goal that is more challenging than the last one….not just different. Which is where the annoyance goes on. Specifically this effects me when it comes to exercising: I keep telling myself I need to run further and faster than the week before. I feel like if I run less miles than I did the week before that I’m getting lazy and my body is going to keep improving.

Now I’m excited to read everyone else’s comments!

Happiness Awaits


Kayzilla May 22, 2009 at 2:09 pm

I hit distress a lot when I’m working towards a goal, but I still don’t give up unless it continues for a long time. A key factor to achieving your goal isn’t to neither give up or to keep going past the limit, but rather to judge for yourself whether or not you should continue with a goal that so far isn’t very comfortable for you.

One thing that helps me get past the uncomfortable goal that has reached a point where I’m depressed thanks to lovely distress is to just say “oh well”. Oh well acknowledges “hey this really sucks” but it also says “I’m going to accept it and move on for now.”

Acing a test would give me eustress.
Studying for it? Distress. Does it mean I’m going to stop studying? Naw. My methods are good, and it’s not that I’m doing anything wrong, but it’s mostly the way I look at studying. The things you say in your head, your cognitive thinking, really make a difference when you approach your goal.

I think that we should evaluate our goals for ourselves when it starts to get dangerous, but as for the uncomfortable feeling? Oh well. Stick with it, keep moving but if it gets too uncomfortable, change something about it.

Humans are guest houses, and the emotions are the visitors. When you are depressed as a result of distress in a goal, sometimes if you stick with it, the distress and depression does leave. The same with eustress. Sometimes being too guided by your emotions could detrack you if you give up or have to keep switching things up in order to avoid being uncomfortable, which sometimes can be unbeneficial, especially when these things will leave eventually if you just stick with it and don’t get too upset when your emotions come or go.

Again, each situation should be judged on a person-to-person basis, and that’s just what I’ve learned when I’ve dealt with my goals. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn’t. -shrug-

It’s so hard to answer a non-specific-situation answer, lol.


Shelly May 22, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Angela, I’m so glad you liked my topic! I thought this was great, insightful post!
What Katherine said in the comments really resonated with me as well b/c that is exactly what I do! I jump from goal to goal and I use them to motivate me. (Example, I wrote a novel in Nov. and was training for my first 10K come January (I ran it April 11). I never bothered to edit the novel b/c I met my goal and was on to the next one. And it wasn’t that good anyway b/c I wrote it in a month for a contest.) I feel like if I don’t have a goal, I’m going to backslide and lose control of everything I’ve gained.
I really do walk that fine line between Eustress and Distress! I love what being goal-oriented has let me achieve, but I would be happier if I could let myself take a break and be proud of myself before rushing headlong into something new.
I’m definitely going to take your questions to heart when I evaluate goals I set for myself in the future. Thinking about it, I really like the answers I have for what happens if I don’t take on the goal or if I fail. Generally, not much. My life will be the way it is now, which is pretty good! It makes me stop and acknowledge that I am at a good place in life rather than just taking all that I have for granted.
I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts on the subject. Thanks!


Lauren May 22, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Such a great post Angela. I’m definitely goal focused, but I say I tend to stay on the Eustress side and not the distressed side. Which I’m glad. Goals motivate me and move me.

I’m looking forward to more on this :) xoxo


Lara May 22, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Another excellent post. I think so many women start off innocently on healthy, “self improvement” programs to eat better, excercise, etc and then get totally carried away to where they program becomes detrimental to mental and physical health (under eating, disordered eating, restriction, over-exercising, etc) all in the name of “being healthy”. I see this on my many healthy food/healthy living blogs (But not OSG Yay!)

I used to be much more goal focused on things that had to do with myself and accomplishments but realized how that quickly became a source of distress. Workouts were no longer a source of pleasure because they were all about setting PR’s in the gym and having to work out harder and harder each time, etc. But deep down all I wanted to do was take it easier and enjoy it more. Yet I convinced myself otherwise. The result was I got really burnt out, sick, worsened my already existing thyroid problem (who knew too much exercise can mess with thyroid?)

Now I am trying to focus on goals that benefit other people like with volunteering, work in the community, being more green at home.


SarahF May 22, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Such a great post-and I love reading what everyone has to say about it.

When I first started exercising I definately fell into the “distress” side. It was all about the numbers: how many days I worked out, how long, how many calories I burnt. Finally I hit my breaking point when I realized that all I thought about all day and everyday was the calories I was eating and how long/if I had worked out.

I started working out to be healthy-not to lose weight. I didn’t need to lose any weight but I started working out to prevent myself from gaining weight. Once I finally remembered that-and the fact that I use to live an extremly unhealthy lifestyle and was happier with my life then-I was able to let all of my distress go and embrace eustress.

Now I do yoga a couple times a week because I love it. I swim once or twice a week because it calms my mind. And I run once or twice a week because I love getting completely covered in sweat and the glow I get from it afterwards (I’m running my first ever race in June-a 10 km for cancer). I enjoy working out but if life gets busy-no biggie. This is for life-so one week where I miss the gym isn’t going to matter.


Angela (Oh She Glows) May 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Such amazing comments!!! I LOVE reading your thoughts on this. I can’t wait to do more posts on it!


Sara May 22, 2009 at 3:48 pm

I don’t really set goals because I never get there and would just disappoint myself. However, I try to exercise every day and feel like I’ve let myself down if I don’t. I injured myself a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to do much exercise since. It does feel horrible. I am distressed about it. I can’t do anything about it; my ankle needs to heal so I can get back to exercising, but I’m still distressed. I’d love to get to the point where I don’t feel disappointed in myself on a regular basis.


Holly May 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I love to set goals…and at times it’s wonderful and motivating – but when I hit a bump in the road, it can turn terribly wrong.

Of course I’m talking about the goal I’ve set for myself presently (to do a triathlon) and my first week of training, I have a bum knee so I can’t run. It’s been a hard, long week. I wonder if I weren’t so firm (read: stubborn) :-) about completing my goals, if I wouldn’t be as bummed if something comes up?

I love the idea of shifting your goals, though, if you do hit a bump in the road. Sometimes when you refocus and have something ELSE to strive for, you wonder how/why you ever wanted to complete the other goal! Love reading other people’s comments here, too. Great post! :-)


Valerie May 22, 2009 at 4:56 pm

I’m definitely a goal-setter when it comes to most aspects of my life. There’s been weight loss, fitness, and academic goals and I do find they keep me on track, especially academic, as it helps me keep sight of why I’m struggling my way through certain classes – grad school is the end goal so thinking of getting there makes it all seem worthwhile.

But… I think there’s a fine line with goal setting. The goal has to be attainable or you’re definitely going to have distress. I’ve always had high expectations for myself so sometimes my goals that would normally keep me motivated actually cause me to become demotivated because I see them as SO unattainable. In some cases though, I’m able to change my goal to something more realistic that still gets me a similar end result. I recently changed my ambitions for grad school from clinical psych to a counseling/social work program because clinical is insanely competitive and doing the other program gets me to the same end goal of being a therapist. So my distress about grad school turned into eustress!

Weight loss and fitness on the other hand sometimes causes me distress. That’s why I try to focus less on numbers because I want me overall goal to be health, not size whatever or weighing whatever pounds or running x number of miles a week. I think keeping the goal more abstract in this case has benefited me because I’m more likely to meet the goal of health through my daily life than achieving certain numbers, which don’t really mean as much in the end.

Anyway, great topic and I love reading other people’s thoughts on this!


Allie May 22, 2009 at 6:36 pm

I’m goal-oriented by nature so yes, I do constantly make goals. Big or small I always have them to keep me moving a motivated. My goals are always positive ones, but like everything else can sometimes take on a life of its own and become something you weren’t expecting it to be, something harmful and negative. Take for example, weight loss. I wanted to lose 10 pounds and ended up with an eating disorder. It’s funny, how we can harmlessly set goals for ourselves and end up causing a lot of damage and distress. Therein lies the flaw within (my) goal-setting, you plan, plan, plan, get excited at the prospect of change, and in a great frenzy of your physical evolution you forget that internally, we need to change and grow as well. I suppose it was a bit of a tough lesson for me to learn. That you can change your body, career, your entire physical life, but if you don’t address what’s going on inside, you’ll never be truly happy. I think finding the balance is really the key :).


Michelle Hisae May 22, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I’m ALWAYS setting goals for myself. Once I complete or fail one, I make up a new one. It’s kind of destructive in a sense because I’m telling myself that I’m not good enough. I do like a challenge, but when that challenge overwhelms my thinking, it’s not good.

I love these discussions! Keep ’em going!


michelle May 22, 2009 at 7:29 pm

once again angela…posting amazing things. I went to the naturopath last night and FINALLY I got some answers about my stomach/gut situation. However, I have to lose 44 lbs from my weight right now. I think I had a mini-breakdown last night. It seems daunting.

I called my Mom and she goes ‘Michelle, don’t focus on the weight loss focus on eating healthy and fixing your gut’. Thank god for moms.

My focus for the next four weeks isn’t on weight…AT ALL. Did I just say that? It’s on eating healthy and following my detox program.

Good-bye scale..now that is an eustress.


Hangry Pants May 22, 2009 at 8:45 pm

This is really interesting and I’ve enjoyed reading all the responses as well. It’s something I’ve been thinking about now that I am almost done training for my first half marathon. I think it’s good for me to set goals, but also not to be rigid and obsess over things. I think you either have that sort of personality or you do not, and quite honestly it’s one reason why I stopped being a lawyer. That career in the place and context in which I was practicing, just brought out my worst most obsessive qualities. No way to live!


jen May 22, 2009 at 10:32 pm

i can’t believe how you’re channeling my life right now. I am so type-A i can’t live up to my own expectations and rediculous goals. i NEED to be perfect. i ask myself “why?” and “for whom?” i know i am loveable, likeable, worthy of all good things i life, and my family and friends do not want or need a perfect jen, but i do and i am not good enough for my standards.

my goal to lose weight went too far and i was hurting myself, not eating and over exercising. then started weight lifting and eating i was happy but occassionally binging. then my life changed and i was unable to handle it, so i binged all the time to deal with stress, creating this vicious cycle of hating myself for stress eating, gaining weight, recking my “good” body. this extra stress made me binge more! then i tried to restrict more and count calories and never eat over my limit even on intense work out days. guess what! no fat loss! WTF? What kind of goals are these? what is being accomplished except more stress and emotional torture by none other than moi???


Ruby May 23, 2009 at 3:09 am

What a great post! It’s a question that’s constantly in my mind. I also enjoyed seeing Shelly’s comment up there – it reminded me to realize the same! I have been working on this. It’s hard to turn off the “ultimate goal” mentality, but as I grow (a little) older, I’m starting to realize we don’t have all the time in the world and should enjoy life. Why spend weeks getting down to an unhealthy weight, only to realize you can’t maintain the result unless you keep working as hard? You’ll never get to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Anyway, I’m also starting to learn that the people around us don’t care what we look like. They just want us happy and healthy!


AGS May 23, 2009 at 12:27 pm

This was interesting for me to read. Some people set goals. Others don’t. And the goals — and how we meet them — vary a great deal by individual. My husband and I are both very goal oriented (probably how we’ve gotten through a lot of things individually and together!) — but we don’t “get” what motivates the other person. We both set out to get a six-pack a couple months ago. But we used different techniques, different eating habits — you name it. COMPLETELY different.

We both came pretty close to our goals (still working on it). . . but the bottom line is that we feel happy and accomplished with our goals. And that is what I realized matters to me: setting a goal that makes me feel energized and positive. I mean, slimming down my legs is a great goal, and I’m always working on it. . . but I get tired of always focusing on the part of me I don’t feel happy about. I realized that by increasing my focus on abs and arms, I’d see lots of progress quickly, and really boost my happiness and confidence.

I like to have a couple of balls in the air — some goals that give me instant/quick return, and some that are longer term. I think that just having my trouble-spots in mind for goals gives me some distress. . . but keeping all of me in mind (including “good” spots) — keeps me motivated and proud of myself.


Leah @ Simply fabulous now May 24, 2009 at 5:20 am

I constantly set goals for myself that I beat myself up for not making:


-running 1000 miles this year.
-doing the 30 day shred every.single.day.

Those are just two but I have a lot that I do this with, and I think I have come to a point where I have to take each day as it comes. I really have no idea what the next 30 days are going to be like, or the next 365 days! I think I look TOO FAR into what I want things to be like in the future that I don’t concentrate on the NOW, so it stresses me out and I become very unhappy about it.


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