Feeling stressed? Is it eustress or distress? A number of researchers (and laypersons) distinguish between stress that is beneficial or facilitative (eustress) for the individual and stress that is debilitative or destructive (distress). Early work on stress owes an intellectual debt to Hans Selye. See, for example, his 1974 book, Stress Without Distress.
But Richard Lazarus, in his book Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, discusses some of the problems with this simplistic binary—namely, the assumption that so-called “positive emotional states, such as joy, love, and positive striving (as in the case of challenge), facilitate health and protect against illness, whereas negative emotional states, such as anger, envy, and jealousy, damage health” (2006, p. 264).
Folk beliefs surrounding contemporary notions of stress have continued to perpetuate the “eustress and positive emotion are good” and “distress and negative emotion are bad” perspectives. It is true, we do find that research shows high levels of distress are associated with poorer performance and reduced learning, increased anxiety and aggression, memory impairment, and other negative outcomes. But many studies have also demonstrated that lower levels of stress are necessary for activating and maintaining attentional and response resources, for stimulation and relieving boredom, for personal growth and developing self-regulatory strategies. Without stress, there is no growth and no opportunity for resilience.
In SLA and Applied Linguistics, we are now seeing researchers working to tease apart these issues and their relevance for L2 learning, teaching, and use by drawing on the findings and perspectives of positive psychology. This offers a pleasant counterpoint to the prevailing focus in the field on anxiety and “negative” emotions by exploring flow, happiness, enjoyment, perseverance, empathy, hope, and other “positive” emotional states. Leading the way are edited volumes by MacIntyre, Gregersen, & Mercer (“Positive Psychology in SLA”) and Gabryś-Barker & Gałajda (“Positive Psychology Perspectives on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”).