Por Jorge Manuel Zelaya Fajardo
"My father was a psychiatrist, my oldest son is studying psychology, I am without a doubt the missing link." - It is a sentence that I usually quote when in one of the seminars, courses and classes that I teach, I have to speak about the human mind. The phrase has a serious and not-so-serious connotation. The truth is that someone who does not know me, will disqualify me from the subjects of the human mind due to my undergraduate (civil engineering) and postgraduate (master of business administration) academic training. However, my passion for the human being in general and the human mind in particular, was born in the classroom as a student but deepened in the classroom as a teacher. Today, I have decided to write a few lines on one of the most exciting topics in the human mind: stress.
We owe it all to a brilliant Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist named Hans Selye. The doctor Selye coined the term stress after extensive, profound and wonderful studies that led him to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949, among other international recognitions. However, in his professional work he discovered the three concepts that define, in a practical way, a large part of the human being's reactions to what happens to him
Doctor Seyle discovered the concepts of distress, stress and eustress. Three different but related concepts, different but intertwined. The concepts with their corresponding names in English are very clear and concisos (where we have problems is when we translate them into Spanish, French, German and Portuguese, among other languages).
Stress is the normal response or reaction of a human being to external situations that affect him. Every day we have stress.
Distress is the prolonged, severe or intense negative response or reaction of a human being to external situations that affect him. It is something that is out of the ordinary and can be somatized (affect the behavior of organs of the human body, reaching critical levels). The prefix di- comes from the Greek which means double.
Eustress is the positive response or reaction of a human being to external situations that affect him. Regardless of the type of external stimulus (positive or negative), the response is positive. The prefix Eus- comes from the Greek which means good
In particular, I consider that in this matter there are two supremely relevant elements that can change (and in my personal case they have changed) the way of seeing things.
The first element is that science defines distress as our reaction to what happens to us. I still remember my open, stubborn and emphatic disbelief when a psychiatrist explained this to me. I did not like it. I did not accept it. I rejected it with fervor. Now it turned out that the distress was MY ability to react to what was happening to me and NOT what was happening to me. Under that premise my debts, my clients, and my wife, my mother-in-law and the government of my country were NO longer the cause of distress in me. The cause of my distress was MY inability to respond effectively to EVERYTHING external to me. It took me several years to assimilate that.
The second element is the fact that distress, stress and eustress are really parts of a continuous line that begins on the left (negative distress) moves to the center (neutral stress) and goes to the right (positive eustress). In other words, it is a dynamic, changing concept, in constant motion.
Few times in my life have I seen as much distress at the local, regional and global level as today. It is impressive that the health crisis of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (which produces the Covid19 disease), has triggered an economic crisis in many countries due to the forced quarantine. Everyone everywhere today, in one way or another, is experiencing distress. Now, if we study carefully, diligently, and with detachment, we will find that human beings, organizations, and countries that throughout human history have faced pandemics, wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, and major crises in general, have had a common denominator regardless of the historical moment, physical place or circumstance where it was carried out: ALL exercised their right to practice Eustress. Everyone was afraid, had pain, experienced panic and suffering, but with a certain stoic clarity, attached to free will and following the discovery of Viktor Frankl (stimulus-space-response) they turned the negative stimulus into a positive response.
It would be really naive to think that after reading these lines, someone would immediately start to respond positively to everything negative that will happen to her/him. That would be delusional, unreal and impractical. The process of building the eustress muscle needs an awakening that leads to a change in attitude and behavior. It needs a lot of practice. You need to develop a habit, perhaps the most difficult of all: Learn to know yourself (and improve yourself). It never happens overnight, never.
We will always have distress, stress and eustress in our life. We will have them every day, without a doubt. As humans we will react to what happens to us in one way or another. The key is to educate ourselves on how to react. As perennial students of life, we can try to move toward eustress as often as possible. It's worth at least trying. I can't think of a better try.