Yes. Some stress is good for you!
Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley: “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.” New research by Kaufer and UC Berkeley along with post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby has uncovered how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. In studies on rats, this team found that significant, but brief stressful events caused stem cells in rat brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rats’ mental performance.
Stress hormones help an animal adapt. Chronic stress raises levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones, which suppresses the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, impairing memory, in addition to the effects this situation can have on the entire body (obesity, heart disease, depression). The study by Kirby concentrated on acute but short-lived stress on the lab rats. This created high levels of the stress hormone corticosterone…as high as in chronic stress…but only for a few hours. This stress doubled the growth of new brain cell in the hippocampus. Two weeks later the rats scored better on a memory test even though two days after the stress was imposed on them, they did not score well. The researchers agree that exposure to acute, intense stress can create post-traumatic stress disorder, but “the ultimate message is an optimistic one”, says Kaufer. “Stress can be something that make you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”
Stress may not make you sick. The belief that stress is a problem makes it a problem. A study of 29,000 people concluded that those who believed stress was bad had a 43 percent increased risk of death. People who didn’t believe stress was bad were less likely to die. So it’s how you deal with stress that is key.
Stress helps you learn. The 2013 study reference above showed that stress can grow the hippocampus.
Stress saves your DNA and RNA. A little bit of stress signals the body to ramp up antioxidants to fight free radicals. Chronic stress, on the other hand, destroys antioxidants.
Stress boosts your immune system. Another study on rats found that acute, short-lived stress made the immune cells more aggressive. Again, chronic stress weakens the immune system.
Stress can be alleviated with charity. A study of 850 people found that risk of death increased by 30 percent after a major stressful event, like losing a spouse. People who helped others, especially by giving, practically eliminated that risk.
Stress can make you more social, more likely to trust others, behave reliably and share resources (2012 study by University of Freiburg, Germany). Stress can enhance creativity, help you tune out distractions and be more willing to take chances. The stress response makes you more alert, more tuned into the threat of danger or more turned on. A Stanford School of Medicine study found stress could help you recover faster from surgery. Stress can also give your life a little zing. Daniel Kirsch, PhD, president of the American Institute of Stress feels the positive aspects of stress are often overlooked. “Marriage and job promotions are stressful situations but in a positive way.” He say “eustress” (stress that is healthy or gives one a feeling of fulfillment of other positive feelings) is what gives life meaning and hope.
Bottom line: your ideas about stress are what make it harmful or not. Intermittent stress grows the memory part of your brain. Chronic stress is the harmful kind.
Ways to mitigate stress: breathing exercises, meditation, listening to music, exercise, guided imagery, journaling, and maintaining a sense of humor.