Stress vs. Distress: Expert Tips for Finding Balance in Your Life

Posted by Citron Hennessey Therapy
Reviewed by Benet Hennessey

October 23, 2023

Stress is a fact of everyday life. Luckily, not all stress is the same, and it isn’t always negative. Understanding the difference between distress and stress can help you find a healthy balance, reach toward what makes life fulfilling and worthwhile, and keep your mental health in good shape for daily challenges.

What Is Stress?

The American Psychological Association defines stress as a physical or mental response to outside pressures. For example, you may feel your heart rate increase at an important job interview, recognize that you’re speaking faster than usual, or even begin to fidget in your seat.

These responses are typically outside of your direct control. They result from an automatic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body and mind for difficult situations.

Stress is not inherently harmful, and a healthy dose of stress can help you accomplish your daily tasks, overcome serious challenges, and draw upon your energy reserves in difficult moments.

When stress is positive, psychologists may refer to it as eustress. Eustress is the response felt when people face challenges and succeed or enjoy the process. You may experience it when playing competitive sports, finishing a complex project, or engaging in a challenging but rewarding task.

What Is Distress?

Distress is the word used to describe inherently negative stress responses. While the physiological changes between stress vs distress are the same, your reaction to these stressors determines whether you feel stressed vs. distressed.

You may feel distressed if your employer gives you a large workload and you need more time to finish it. You could feel it when facing challenges in your relationship or running late for a meeting.

The essential characteristic of comparing distress vs. stress is that distress makes you feel worse and can lead mental health consequences, including poor sleep outcomes, excessive anxiety, or physical tension or illness.

What Is the Difference Between Stress and Distress?

The critical difference between distress and stress is your internal reaction to external challenges. It is not so much what happens to us that makes us feel a certain way, it is more about how we think about what happens to us. If we tell ourselves something potentially stressful is overwhelming then we are likely to feel anxious and use maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with what we have told ourselves is distressful. But often, a change in perspective can change distress into eustress.

For example, one person may feel distressed at the thought of giving a public speech, while another may feel excited and energetic. The physiological response is the same — a fluttering heartbeat, a nervous energy, and a quickening of the breath — but the mental reaction is entirely different.

Of course, not all stressors can be skewed towards the positive by a mental switch. Threats of violence, experiencing loss, or being challenged by multiple demands aren’t easily overcome and can often benefit from the help of trained mental health professionals. Knowing the difference between stress vs. distress is essential to finding the right coping skill.


The symptoms of stress vs. distress overlap significantly, particularly in how these experiences affect you physically. You may experience symptoms such as:

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Quickened breathing
  • Fidgeting or nervous energy
  • Talking quickly
  • Post-stress fatigue

The true difference between feeling distressed and stressed is the mental component. Someone experiencing distress may feel:

  • Inappropriately anxious, fearful, or worried
  • Heightened negative emotions
  • A feeling of being overwhelmed

Determining what is distress, stress, or eustress largely depends on how it affects your mental health and the nature of the stressor.


The duration of stress depends mainly on the individual and the circumstances. Short-term stress can last just minutes or hours. But recurring stress, sometimes called chronic stress, can persist for several hours a day for months.

How to Cope With Stress and Distress

There are three main methods for coping with stress and distress:

  1. Remove Stressors: The simplest solution is to cut out the things in your life that are causing you stress by turning down unnecessary roles or responsibilities or not spending time with the people who add stress to your life.
  2. Build Capacity for Stress: Certain activities, such as mindfulness meditation, exercise, and self-care, can build your capacity to handle stressful situations and help prevent you from being overwhelmed by stress.
  3. Seek Mental Health Treatment: Working with a therapist can help you to identify your stressors, use evidence-based strategies to help you overcome your stress, and find healthier ways to manage your tasks, time, and life.

Each method is effective, but combining all three methods is the fastest way to overcome stress.

Find a Therapist With Citron Hennessy

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress or distress, it helps to talk to someone. The therapists at Citron Hennessy have decades of experience assisting people to overcome anxiety, despair, and other mental health challenges.

We can help you find a path to overcome these issues. Call our team today at (917) 216-7787 to connect with the best therapists for anxiety and stress and start laying a foundation for a stronger and healthier life.

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