Neurologically, what is the difference between being stressed and excited?
August 2, 2009 4:23 PM   Subscribe

Neurologically, what is the difference between being stressed and excited?

Because stress/anxiety and excitement/thrill feel so different, I would expect them to be physiologically very different. Yet from the reading I've done, they appear to involve very similar neurotransmitters and body systems (HPA axis activation, adrenaline release, etc). What are the specific physiological differences between the two?
posted by lunchbox to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
They're two varying types of stress: eustress and distress.
posted by kldickson at 4:50 PM on August 2, 2009

As far as I know, the difference between eustress and distress is emotional.
posted by reflecked at 4:53 PM on August 2, 2009

I am not a neurologist, but I'd think both forms of stress are merely forms of excitement.
posted by rhizome at 4:55 PM on August 2, 2009

I have a feeling that stress, as we usually mean it, is unrelenting. Excitement is OK if it goes on for a little while, but drag that out for hours, days, weeks, and we feel a weariness compounded if we don't know how to escape it. Put another way, fight-or-flight becomes torment if you can neither fight nor flee, but have to stick around dealing with a situation.
posted by zadcat at 5:01 PM on August 2, 2009

Endorphin release?

Great question, btw.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:20 PM on August 2, 2009

Stress and excitement are, at the basic level, neurologically the same. It's the emotional perspective placed on the stressor that makes it either "exciting" or "stressful". Control of the situation is important, as well as the duration of the stressor.
posted by troutforbrains at 7:01 PM on August 2, 2009

Thanks for the answers so far. selfmedicating's answer is the type of thing I am looking for: a specific neurochemical difference between the two states of mind. For the two to feel so subjectively different, they must involve different neurotransmitters/hormones or activate different parts of the brain. I am trying to understand what those differences are.

Thanks for introducing the distinction between distress and eustress; that is precisely the distinction I am trying to understand.
posted by lunchbox at 7:51 PM on August 2, 2009

Check out the two-factor theory of emotion. The idea is that many physical/emotional states are ambiguous (e.g. the state of 'being adrenaliney.') We then interpret these feelings using what we know about our situation, what's just happened, etc etc. (e.g: "I'm stressed out." "I'm super-excited.") So, although sometimes X will annoy us, other times we will just "feel annoyed" and look for an X to blame.

This fits into the fact that stress and excitement aren't that different physiologically. Anecdotally we recognise it when we acknowledge that laughing and crying are very different but in some ways very similar - we "burst into" both.

Wikipedia mentions a model of mood that you might find interesting, "energy" vs "tension."

The flipside to your question is: what is the neurological difference between being quietly sad and happily relaxed?
posted by so_necessary at 7:54 PM on August 2, 2009

My point being that the difference between eustress and distress is likely to be the same difference as that between happiness and sadness in general.
posted by so_necessary at 8:14 PM on August 2, 2009

I think you might start looking at cortisol. "Stress" sounds more long-term; I think of excitement as being short-term.
posted by adipocere at 8:17 PM on August 2, 2009

There is still a bit of debate about what really happens, but this is the best interpretation that I have come up with.

The difference between anxiety and excitement is mainly emotional attribution. Meaning it is your interpretation of events that matters, more than the actual system-wide brain chemicals. Emotions themselves are as difficult to measure as any other thought process and there is still a lot of research to do on this before we have a good neurological model of emotion.

Stress is not synonymous with anxiety. It is the effect of being at a state of high tension for an extended duration. Whether that state is being scared for your life or thinking really intently, after a while that can have effects on your health. Depressed immune, system, trouble concentrating etc.

My favorite study to cite concerning this is when they injected two volunteers with 'vitamins' for a study. The vitamins were actually adrenaline and while the subject was in the waiting room they were paired with another 'subject', actually a confederate in the experiment. Who either acted angry about the wait, or happy it was easy money. It turned out that the the subjects reported their moods as similiar to the confederates.

There is still a bit of debate about what really happens, but this is the best interpretation that I have come up with.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:33 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interesting question!

Have no science to contribute, but can I ask a follow up question?

So distress and eustress are physiologically similar but emotionally different. Then how is it that this purely emotional attribution leads to different physiological consequences?

Someone constantly going through distress, a soldier for example, ends up with PTSD; yet someone constantly going through eustress, a professional mountain biker, will still be psychologically fit. (Or do thrill seekers in extreme sports actually end up with PTSD, but we just don't call it that?)

I guess what I'm asking is if negative emotional attribution in itself leads to further physiological stress, creating a kind of feedback loop? And then positive emotional attribution must not perpetuate physiological stress...
posted by macg02 at 5:26 AM on August 3, 2009

Emotions can be characterized on the basis of two factors, arousal and valence. Arousal refers to the intensity of the emotion, whereas valence refers to how pleasant or unpleasant the emotion is. Stress and excitement might be similar in terms of arousal, but differ in valence.

Cortisol and adrenergic responses are similar across stress and excitement because these responses are associated with arousal. There are some neural differences associated with valence, although the literature on that is less clear. The amygdala tends to be associated more with negative stimuli (but not always), and the dopaminergic reward system including striatum tends to be linked with positive stimuli (but not always). Other studies have indicated that different subregions of prefrontal cortex respond differentially to negative versus positive stimuli. See this search for some studies in humans.
posted by dino might at 4:42 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might want to think of it as the difference between exercise and overwork, one of which is good for you and one that leaves you with bad chemicals bubbling around causing trouble for a day or two.

A Primate's Memoir is a fun read that happens to talk about stress, and different kinds of it, as it goes along.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:26 PM on August 3, 2009

You might want to look into Addison's Disease. I knew a woman who had it, and her reactions to (and avoidance of) eustress and distress were remarkable. She couldn't even watch an exciting movie without feeling ill.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:19 AM on February 22, 2010

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