The prevailing idea in our culture is that stress is bad. People complain about being stressed out. But we’re learning that moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits.
You know the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ?
So, that can be applied to stress, as studies done by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have shown that short periods of stress can actually help the brain improve.
“Manageable stress increases alertness and performance” study author Daniela Kaufer, PhD, a professor of integrative biology, told Berkeley Wellness. “Extreme or chronic stress can have a negative effect. But moderate and short-lived stress—like an upcoming exam or preparing to deliver a speech in public —improves cognitive performance and memory”. This is why some people work better under pressure—the short-term stress helps your brain zero in on the one task it needs to do, and shut out everything else.
Short-term stress can bump up your energy a notch or two, especially if it’s the good kind. “Positive stress, also called Eustress, is an experience that offers a beneficial form of arousal,” says Deborah Serani, a psychology professor at Adelphi University. “Eustress motivates us, sharpens our senses, and helps us problem solve successfully”.
Good stress actually creates new neural pathways and stimulates healthful endorphins. “What research tells us about eustress is that it accesses our neuroendocrine system differently than distress, which is stress that’s too overwhelming,” Dr. Serani says. “Eustress stimulates more health-enhancing biochemistry like endorphins than distress does.”
It’s true that long-term, chronic stress can make you more prone to illness—but short-term “good” stress can actually provide some protection against getting sick. “Eustress increases your immune functioning” Dr. Serani says.
Other studies have shown that those who experience brief stress in early life—like a short separation from their mother—actually had less anxiety and better brain function as adults. Longer stress in infancy and childhood is still associated with negative outcomes, though.
Dealing with some amount of stress is a normal part of life, and those who can look at it in a positive way may enjoy more beneficial and fewer negative effects. According to PhD Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford psychologist and the author of The Upside of Stress, psychologists have found that the ability to embrace stress requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. And for her, the key is not to avoid stress, but to find healthy ways to manage it when it happens. To do this, view your body’s stress response as helpful, and certainly not stupid.
“The ability to learn from stress is built into the basic biology of the stress response,” McGonigal says in a university press release. Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it. Going through the experience gives your brain and body a stress vaccine.”
To conclude, according to a study from Florida State University, the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, going through stressful situations can make you appreciate life more. Researchers asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “In general, I consider my life to be meaningful.” Surprisingly, those who had experienced more stressful life events thought of their lives as having more meaning.