High Performance Productivity Basics: Stress

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Stress has a negative connotation for many of us. It can stand for anxiety about things that are within our control (a situation at work) or not at all in our control (economic or foreign policy). What we may not realize is that our body is built to deal with stress on a short-term basis: it can release hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and gets your muscles ready to respond. But should your body stay in this state for an extended time period, there can be truly negative consequences for your physical and mental health.

In his landmark book The Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss discussed the difference between “eustress” and “distress” as a way to more helpfully parse the generic word “stress” (and its negative connotations). There are visible signs of either which you can use to welcome more of the good kind of stress (eustress) and eliminate the bad kind of stress (distress). A basic foundation of productivity is awareness of these types of stress and thoughtful management of them.


Eustress is anabolic. Anabolic activities for your body are growth-oriented. At the smallest level, it’s the process of smaller and simpler molecules being built into larger, complex ones. When your body experiences stress, it enables better memory, a stronger immune system, a better sense of direction, and enhanced energy. Your mind will focus on “what you need to do.” You know you are experiencing some kind of eustress if you:

-are excited. Not the fleeting excitement awaiting you before a party or a date, but an ongoing state of excitement about what you’re doing.

-feel on purpose. You feel convinced that you are working on the things you need to be working on.

-find that you have a high level of motivation. You don’t need to convince yourself of what to do: you are powering through the tasks you need to complete.

-sense an elevated level of energy. You’re not tired and find that there are not enough hours in the day to do what you want.


Distress is catabolic. Catabolic activities are oriented around breaking things down. Larger, more complex molecules in the body are broken down into smaller, simpler ones. When your body experiences distress, it causes a decrease in energy, an increase in blood pressure, a weakening of your immune system, and a longer-term trigger of the flight or fight warning system, which we alluded to above in relation to increased heart and breathing rates. Your mind will tend to focus on “what not to do.” You know you are experiencing some kind of distress if you:

-are more irritable. Your tolerance for error in yourself and others decreases.

-are more often sick. Your immune system has grown weaker and there are consequences.

-have difficulty sleeping. Obviously being irritable and sick won’t help you sleep, but the hormones being released via long-term distress are meant to keep you focused and alert for flight/fight, not help you get to sleep.

-are unable to concentrate. You lack the ability to stay on a task for the necessary amount of time to complete it, or even an important portion of it.

-are unmotivated. You don’t feel the desire to complete what you know you need to complete.

So, as you can see, there are two types of stress, and the word itself should no longer have a negative connotation just on its own to you. Indeed, your body uses stress to make adjustments to help you continue to perform. But you have to do your own part too. You have to remove things that distress you from your life and lean into the things that bring you eustress. By having this basic awareness of the mental and physiological results of different types of stress, you have a better foundation for peak productivity, which we will speak more about in coming articles.