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Eustress, Distress, and Performance

A long time ago, when I was parsing out which “model” approach was the best fit for me (EAGALA? PATH? Epona? EGEA?), StarrLee Heady made the statement that which model I chose to follow depended on what I thought produced change. And, I’m a big believer in change coming about because of being uncomfortable and/or in enough pain to want to do something different. The EAGALA philosophy was an excellent articulation of my thoughts. To paraphrase, people don’t change unless they are challenged and they are outside their comfort zone. The most significant change comes when people find their own answers to questions. I thought then, and still feel now, that this is true and best represents how we practice at Horse Sense when we offer EAP.

What I didn’t know and didn’t learn until years later was that there was a term for the “pain” I was talking about: eustress. “Pain” is a layman’s term for discomfort/distress/arousal, which I believe are on the same continuum (more about this in a moment). Succinctly put, eustress means “good stress.” This stress has less to do with what causes the stress than in how a person responds to that stress. So, what is “good stress” for me might be “bad stress” for someone else: “Eustress refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one’s current feelings of control, desirability, location and timing of the stressor” (“Eustress,” 2012, para. 3). In the process and the set-up of EAP/EAL sessions, we create a setting of control, dictating the timing and location of the stressor: the time of the session itself. The horses provide the desirability, a reason to put up with the challenge in the first place. What we’re doing in EAP is attempting to shift bad stress to good stress, creating challenges and then reframing the experience and response with more tools, more coping skills, and more support.

Similarly, the Yerkes-Dodson Law also has implications regarding the uses of discomfort in EAP/EAL, helping us recognize how far is too far and how much is too much. This law reflects the relationship between arousal and performance, stating that “performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases” (“Yerkes-Dodson,” 2013, para. 1).

This is best expressed visually in the Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson model which (see Figure 4.2), which “demonstrates the optimum balance of stress with a bell curve…. This model is supported by research demonstrating emotional-coping and behavioral-coping strategies are related to changed in perceived stress” (“Eustress,” 2012, para. 5).

As Goleman (2011) describes through the lens of brain functioning:
Just beyond the optimal zone at the top or the performance arc there is a tipping point where the brain secretes too many stress hormones, and they start to interfere with our ability to work well, to learn, to innovate, to listen, and to plan effectively. (Kindle Locations 516-517)

I have certainly experienced sessions in which the arousal was too high and performance for the client crashed; I have also been a part of EAP sessions in which there was little to no “performance” tension, and the impact was mitigated and the session ended up a feel-good petting zoo experience. While I believe in the power of horses just in their presence alone and in contact with them, I believe the power of EAP is about more than just the presence of a horse. Our job as facilitators, though, is to manage the relationship between arousal and performance, creating an environment that is ultimately productive for the client. I’ve found that when clients spike in arousal beyond beneficial parameters, that’s often a good time to move into grooming and other physical contact activities between horse and human, as both experience an increase in oxytocin when that happens, reducing anxiety (again, more on oxytocin shortly!). This kind of intervention will also be appropriate with clients who are experiencing trauma.

I’ve often felt that excitement/arousal are not far removed from discomfort and distress, that they are on a continuum with each other, or at least are two sides of the same coin. What I have observed in client sessions is that what is considered excitement for one client is considered distress for another, and that what may start as discomfort and negative regard for the session work for a client can quickly move towards arousal and positive regard. The person who is terrified of horses at the start of a workshop is often to be found hanging out with horses at the end of a workshop. Helping clients manage their relationship between comfort, discomfort, and fear---the three zones again---is part of the work of EAP/EAL.


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