Home All The Transformative Power of EuStress: Embracing Discomfort

The Transformative Power of EuStress: Embracing Discomfort

written by Alex Sternick 2 November 2023

Alex Sternick, is an expert and internationally recognized practitioner of the Art of Nonsense and Laughter Therapy. He started laughter clubs in Israel and worked with Israelis and Arabs in an attempt to bring these diverse groups together through laughter and nonsense. His web site is Laughter Stress Management. Alex is the Gibberish Professor for the Msc. in Applied Positive Psychology program at New Bucks University in the UK. Full bio. Articles by Alex are here.

Stress and Distress: A Universal Experience

“You Come to the Cold or the Cold comes to you, You come to the Distress or the Distress comes to You, You come to the Dis-Ease or the Dis-Ease comes to you” ~ Wim Hof

Stress is an inherent part of human existence, triggered by challenging circumstances that compel us to respond. It can manifest as distress, which often feels imposed and unwanted, resulting from unresolved traumas, ongoing life challenges, or even physical illnesses. In conventional medicine, the approach is typically to combat stress with pharmacological solutions, as it is seen as abnormal and something to be eliminated. But stress doesn’t always require extreme situations. Simple everyday sources include enduring discomfort from hunger or adverse weather conditions. Our instinct is to kill the discomfort and seek relief. We eat something to extinguish hunger, and we put on more clothes not to feel cold.

Embracing Distress: The Power of Eustress

Hans Selye introduced the term eustress in the 1970s, creating a distinction between negative distress and positive eustress. While distress brings negative emotions and adverse physical effects, eustress can stimulate feelings of happiness and motivation. Wim Hof, known as The Ice Man, exemplifies a conversion of distress to eustress in daily life through his voluntary immersion in icy waters. Unlike distress, which is imposed on us, eustress can occur because we make a conscious choice to confront stress head-on.

Cold Water

Wim Hof’s immersion in cold water is a conscious, voluntary act that can have profound physiological, emotional, and psychological effects. It forces the chattering mind to shut down, enabling individuals to focus on adapting and surviving in the moment. The chattering mind may be the source of negativity, worrying habits, suffering, and feelings of victimization.

The initial shock of cold exposure can give way to deep, controlled breathing and a surrender to the discomfort, resulting in relief and even pleasure.  It takes usually no more than two minutes of immersion in the icy water (adaptation time) before people feel that they can carry on longer. It’s a clear demonstration that embracing stress voluntarily by adapting a free choice attitude can lead to positive outcomes.

Intentional Experience of Fear

Playful Approaches to Discomfort

Dr. Viktor Frankl introduced the concept of paradoxical intention, suggesting that embracing anticipatory anxiety and fear can yield surprisingly beneficial results. By consciously choosing to feel anxious or full of dread, individuals can gain control over their emotions.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl illustrates the concept of paradoxical intervention in two stories. In one, a person with anticipatory anxiety about a stroke is advised to proclaim it loudly to an audience. In the other, someone anxious about giving a speech is particularly worried about sweating heavily while he talks. He is told to imagine himself sweating excessively, 5 liters from one armpit and 10 from the other. Frankl’s paradoxical intentions challenge the traditional therapeutic methods of symptom elimination and masking. This non-conformist approach is related to the Wisdom of Fools concept, in which a character recognized as a fool comes to be seen as a bearer of wisdom.

In Paradoxical Coaching and HumorDrama, clients are encouraged to confront their emotional challenges in playful, theatric manners. By exaggerating and inflating their discomfort, they can find relief and acceptance. The coach takes on the role of a devil’s advocate in order to help clients navigate their emotional struggles.

Embracing Vulnerability is a Path to Self-Acceptance

Coming to terms with vulnerability and embracing one’s shadows and weaknesses can also be experienced as eustress. Instead of hiding or masking these aspects of oneself, individuals can choose to confront them playfully and consciously, leading to self-acceptance. Wim Hof’s cold exposure method parallels this approach, as individuals voluntarily face discomfort and stress to improve self-evaluation and well-being.

Confront Emotion

Keith Johnstone, an improvisation teacher, introduced a scene called “IGOR and Boris” in which one player is an interrogator and the second player is a suspect. The interrogator takes on a cruel role, trying to make the suspect admit to a crime, often with the assistance of two invisible hooligans, Igor and Boris. They simulate beating the suspect to compel a confession. The scene concludes when the suspect becomes physically drained and confesses. This improvisation aims to help actors confront and cope with humiliation and bullying through humor and laughter. By inflating these feelings in a controlled environment, participants develop resilience and learn not to take external circumstances personally. This approach can also benefit those who struggle to express anger or stand up for their rights by allowing them to express anger consciously and gain control over it.

Self-Acceptance is attained when people are able to meet, befriend, and be at ease with their shadow sides, vulnerabilities, and incapabilities. Meeting them voluntarily is an example of eustress, different from the more common tendency to hide, mask, or ignore them. Self-acceptance ensues when people use conscious playfulness to befriend their vulnerabilities.

EuStress: A Liberating Approach

EuStress, in contrast to imposed distress, allows individuals to make a conscious choice to delve deeper into their stress, ultimately leading to its disappearance. This approach empowers individuals to take control and let go simultaneously, offering a liberating alternative to the conventional tendency to battle or diminish emotional and mental discomfort. By embracing stress voluntarily, one can build immunity and experience it as enjoyable and playful. According to Wim Hof, this approach can positively impact the nervous system, immune system, and DNA, resulting in a strong and healthy life in all aspects. Perhaps traditional assumptions in medicine need revision.

In conclusion, the power of embracing discomfort and stress voluntarily through methods like cold exposure, paradoxical coaching, and humor-driven theater can lead to transformative personal growth and well-being. Intentionally facing emotional and mental challenges can turn stress into eustress, a source of strength and resilience.


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ScienceDaily (2011). Research on ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof suggests it may be possible to influence autonomic nervous system and immune response

Image Credits

Hands photo (featured image) by Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Man in cold water photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash

Mannequin photo by Photo by HI! ESTUDIO on Unsplash

Face photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

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