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    Understanding the Dynamics of Stress: Exploring Good Stress, Bad Stress, and its Link to Substance Abuse


    It’s a “bad” word with a host of negative associations, right?

    Sometimes, that’s true. But not always.

    Another true thing about stress is it’s inevitable—it influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours throughout the day. It profoundly affects our mental, emotional, and physical health.

    While some stress can be motivating, too much stress, or stress that is poorly managed, can lead to many negative outcomes, including substance abuse.

    This article aims to explain the concepts of good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress), exploring their impact on individuals and how stress can contribute to substance abuse. 

    Understanding this complex relationship is crucial for developing strategies to cope with stress in healthy ways.

    Understanding Good Stress (Eustress)

    “Good stress” is an actual thing, and its technical term is eustress. Good stress is characterised by its positive impact on “health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.” Unlike distress, which can be overwhelming and harmful, eustress is manageable and even enjoyable.

    Examples of eustress include:

    • Starting a new job
    • Planning a wedding
    • Travelling to a new place
    • Participating in an exciting activity like skydiving

    Eustress can arise from various places, such as:

    Achievement and success

    Setting and achieving goals, whether personal or professional, can bring on feelings of eustress. The sense of satisfaction that comes from overcoming obstacles is highly rewarding.

    Growth and development

    Activities that promote personal growth such as learning skills and new hobbies, can generate good stress. These experiences involve stepping out of your comfort zone and realising that opportunities equal personal growth.

    Adventure and novelty

    Exploring new experiences, like travelling to unfamiliar places, can bring on the thrill of discovery and adventure.

    Relationships and social connection

    Building meaningful relationships with others and participating in social activities can foster feelings of good stress. Positive social interactions enhance a sense of belonging.

    Benefits of Eustress

    Presentation in a meeting

    Eustress offers a range of benefits, including:

    • Motivation
    • Productivity
    • Resilience
    • Emotional satisfaction
    • Physical health

    The big point here is that not all stress is bad! Some stress is actually helpful for your well-being. 

    Understanding Bad Stress (Distress)

    While eustress can be beneficial, distress, or “bad stress” is the type that we are all familiar with. This type of stress can be negative and harmful. It is characterised by anxiety, overwhelm, and exhaustion.

    Distress can stem from various places, such as:

    Work and financial pressure

    High work demands, job insecurity, and financial worries can contribute to distress. The pressure to meet deadlines, perform well, and maintain financial stability can be overwhelming and lead to burn out.

    Relationship issues

    Relationship problems, whether romantic, familial, or social, can be sources of distress. Communication difficulties, unresolved conflicts, and feelings of isolation can exacerbate stress levels.

    Health challenges

    Dealing with illness, injury, or other health-related issues can be highly stressful. The uncertainty and fear associated with health challenges can take a toll on someone’s mental and physical well-being.


    Experiencing trauma can result in profound distress. Unresolved trauma can have long-lasting effects on mental and physical health, leading to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    The Consequences of Distress

    couple fight

    Left unchecked, distress can have significant negative consequences on physical, mental, and emotional health in the forms of :

    • Mental health disorders
    • Substance abuse
    • Physical health problems
    • Strained relationships
    • Impaired functioning

    The Complex Interplay Between Stress and Substance Abuse

    The relationship between stress and substance abuse is complicated. While stress can contribute to substance abuse, other factors are in play here too. Substance abuse can also exacerbate stress and create other challenges.

    Several factors influence this interplay:


    Some people may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate and alleviate stress. The issue here is that substance use only provides temporary relief from stress, and it ultimately perpetuates a cycle of addiction and more stress.

    Coping strategies

    Without healthy coping strategies, some may resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, to deal with stress. 

    Neurobiological changes

    Chronic stress and substance abuse can lead to neurobiological changes in the brain, specifically affecting the areas involved in reward processing, stress regulation, and decision making. These changes reinforce addictive behaviours, making it difficult to break free from substance abuse.

    Social factors

    Peer pressure and social norms are social factors that can influence the relationship between stress and substance abuse. Individuals may be more likely to abuse substances if they perceive this as socially acceptable or if they are surrounded by others who use substances to deal with stress.

    Co-Occurring disorders

    Stress and substance abuse often co-occur with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. These co-occurring disorders can exacerbate each other’s symptoms and complicate treatment efforts.

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    Preventing Substance Abuse in the Face of Stress

    Addressing the link between stress and substance abuse requires an approach that targets individual, interpersonal, and environmental factors. Some effective strategies include:

    Stress management techniques

    Teaching individual coping strategies such as mindfulness, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can help. When you learn how to naturally combat stress and see its effectiveness, you are less likely to turn to substances for relief.

    Behavioural therapies

    Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) are evidence-based approaches that address negative thought patterns and coping behaviours associated with stress and substance abuse. These therapies help individuals develop healthier ways of managing stress and handling painful emotions.

    Social support

    A young woman standing and talking to other people during group therapy.

    Building strong social support networks and fostering connections can be invaluable in dealing with stress. Whether it’s through peers, family, or support groups, social support can provide encouragement and accountability.

    Trauma-informed care

    Sometimes the impact of trauma goes unnoticed as a cause for stress and substance abuse. Simply recognizing past trauma and its impacts is the first step in managing it in a healthy way. Trauma-informed care focuses on creating safe and empowering environments that validate individuals’ experiences in order to promote healing.

    Holistic approaches

    Thinking of combating stress holistically means taking the approach that considers how physical, emotional, and social factors influence substance abuse. This involves implementing strategies that focus on enhancing coping skills, improving mental health, and promoting healthy lifestyle habits.

    Community interventions

    Implementing policies and programs that address social determinants of stress, such as poverty, discrimination, and access to healthcare, can help reduce the prevalence of stress-related substance abuse at the community level. Initiatives aimed at promoting economic stability and improving mental health services are crucial steps.

    What’s the Bottom Line?

    The relationship between stress and substance abuse isn’t black and white. A lot of grey area seeps in from various physical, emotional, environmental, and social factors. While eustress can motivate and inspire, distress can lead to harmful coping mechanisms like substance abuse.

    There is hope, though!

    Understanding the dichotomy of stress is step number one for developing effective strategies to combat substance abuse and support recovery.

    At White River Manor, we believe in taking a holistic approach to addiction treatment—one that addresses the underlying causes of substance abuse, including stress. By providing comprehensive services, including individual therapy, group therapy, stress management techniques, and trauma-informed care, we empower individuals to overcome addiction and reclaim their lives.

    How Can White River Manor Help?

    If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please take the first step toward healing today. Our compassionate team is here to provide you with a personalised treatment plan to meet your unique needs. Together, we can break free from the destructive cycle of addiction. Contact us now to learn more about what we offer and take the next step toward recovery.

    Your journey toward healing starts with us.