With the group stage almost over and the business end of the World Cup coming into view, you may be dreading nerve-racking 90 minutes after nerve-racking 90 minutes, or planning to hide behind the sofa to avoid the stress of watching penalties.
Why do we put ourselves through it? One reason is that there’s a level of stress that can be exciting. There’s even a term for this, eustress, and it’s a concept that can help you change how you face stress outside of watching sport.
What is eustress?
“Eu is just ‘good’ in Ancient Greek, so it’s basically good stress,” says Brendan Street, a cognitive behavioural therapist and head of charity at Nuffield Health.
“When you talk about stress, you think about negative stress, but some stress can be good for us. There’s something called the Yerkes-Dodson law. You’ve got performance and arousal, and there’s a bell-shaped curve that says that if you’ve got too much stress, then your performance depletes and you move into distress. If you’ve got too little stress, then you don’t perform at all because you’re bored. There’s a Goldilocks zone in the middle, which is eustress.”
Experts who have looked at how stress affects the body have shown how it can be a beneficial influence, but also how too much of it leads to health problems in the long term.
“A stress response is also referred to as ‘fight or flight’,” says Street. “When you perceive a threat, it’s that physiological response that gets you out of the way [of danger]. A short, sharp release of adrenaline, and a release of cortisol, which is the main stress hormone, increases your heart rate, increases your breathing rate and directs blood away from your extremities to your internal organs, so you’re ready to react.
“Another thing that cortisol does is it makes your blood stickier, so it coagulates quickly. That’s why your blood pressure goes up – sticky blood is more difficult to pump – but in the short term, if you get injured you don’t bleed to death.
“That reaction isn’t bad for us, but if you’re constantly stressed, and you’re constantly releasing adrenaline and cortisol, that’s like revving the car all the time. Long-term stress can cause strokes, heart disease, increased diabetes, increased obesity, anxiety, depression.”
How people seek out eustress
There are some sources of stress that will generally lead to eustress for most of us, and one of them is following your favourite sports team.
“Think about the World Cup, or a football match in general,” says Street. “The psychological impact of a football match is short-lived, and generally eustress is what people experience. Though that can depend on whether you win or lose, and the caveat is that it’s not good for everybody, because instances of domestic abuse go up in major football tournaments.”
If football isn’t for you, there are other common sources of eustress that many of us seek out, but the same stressors don’t work for everyone. It’s all about perception and what you’re looking for from the experience.
“That’s what people who go into extreme sports are seeking,” says Street. “Horror films too. You’re looking for that peak, that adrenaline release. But if you’re forced on to a roller coaster or to watch a horror film and you hate them, it would tip over into distress.”
The same is true of exercise, which can be one of the regular sources of eustress for lots of people, but when you first start exercising the challenge of it can make it unpleasantly stressful.
“Exercise is a good source of eustress,” says Street. “But if you’re not used to it or ready for that, then exercise can tip into distress. You perceive the pain as a stressor and that kicks off the more intensive stress, but generally the reason most people keep going back to exercise is because you get that adrenaline kick.”
Changing how you respond to stress
How you think about stress is central to how it affects your body, so it can be beneficial to get away from the idea that stress is just a bad thing.
“There are stressors and a stress reaction, but a stressor doesn’t necessarily need to cause a stress reaction,” says Street. “And then if it does, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a negative stress reaction. It’s about perception. Something is only a threat when you perceive it as a threat.”
Catching yourself when you respond to challenging situations with negative thoughts about yourself and turning them into helpful thoughts will help from eustress tipping into distress as well. For instance, Street suggests thinking: “I can find ways around this, I’ve got other resources and other people that can support me”.
As well as your frame of mind, there are other ways to put yourself in the best possible position to face stress.
“A lot of it comes down to the basic things that we all know we need to do,” says Street. “Like eating well, avoiding too much booze and caffeine, and taking time sometimes to just sit and relax.
“Think about your values as well. I really value being a dad, so I make sure I get some time with my daughter because that’s the thing I value, and that’s when I’m going to revitalise and recharge myself. Often we get stuck in a stressful job and that’s what we do all the time. We never recharge.
“Exercise is key. There’s a massive connection with physical activity. So 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, or 75 minutes of more intensive exercise. If you’re not getting enough exercise and you do experience something challenging, then you’re more likely to skip eustress and go straight to distress.”
Domestic abuse helplines can be found through the UK Government’s domestic abuse: how to get help webpage.
Brendan Street is a cognitive behavioural therapist and head of charity at Nuffield Health. He has over 25 years’ experience treating mental health problems and is a BABCP-accredited cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and supervisor, and a NMC-registered mental health nurse.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.