Could stress actually be good for you?

is stress good for you?

Stress. It’s not something I typically react well to, and I know I’m not alone in that. A stressful event, or a combination of them, has been known to result in me going into ‘shutdown’ mode, sometimes for days.

So the concept of stress being a good thing comes as a bit of a shock. As it turns out, though, it does make a degree of sense. A little bit of stress – but not too much – can have a positive effect on our cognitive function.

In a new paper published in the journal Psychiatry Research, researchers from the University of Georgia and Stanford University say a “growing body of research suggests that limited stress can result in cognitive benefits that may contribute to resilience”.

To test that hypothesis, the researchers used a sample of 1206 young adults from the Human Connectome Project – a five-year project aimed at mapping the human brain – to test what is known as the ‘hormetic’ effect between low-to-moderate perceived stress.

Read: New study links stress with lower immunity as you age

The word ‘hormetic’ refers to a process known as hormesis, which, in simple terms, is the brain’s response to exposure to increasing amounts of a substance or a condition, such as stress.

Publishing their results in a paper titled Is Perceived Stress Linked to Enhanced Cognitive Functioning and Reduced Risk for Psychopathology? Testing the Hormesis Hypothesis (the length and complexity of the title alone is enough to cause some of us stress!), the authors conclude that their study “provides preliminary support for the benefits of limited stress to the process of human resilience”.

Lead author Dr Assaf Oshri (associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences) said: “If you’re in an environment where you have some level of stress, you may develop coping mechanisms that will allow you to become a more efficient and effective worker and organise yourself in a way that will help you perform.”

Read: How does your body react to a week without stress?

To put it another way, a series of ‘stress rehearsals’ in your youth might help you better cope with more highly stressful episodes later in life. The key here is working out what is the ideal level of stress.

Just as you might be encouraged at the gym to put some strain on your muscles to build them up, your brain can benefit from incremental increases in stress levels.

Of course, too much strain on the muscles can lead to a tear or rupture, and it appears to be a similar story for stress and your brain. As Dr Oshri says: “At a certain point, stress becomes toxic. Chronic stress … can have very bad health and psychological consequences. It affects everything from your immune system to emotional regulation to brain functioning. Not all stress is good stress.”

Read: Three breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety

But ‘good stress’ can act as a vaccine against the effect of future adversity. Examples of ‘good stress’ can include studying for an exam or preparing for a big meeting.

Such ‘training’ has been observed in other animals. In her book Bird Minds, Professor Gisela Kaplan wrote of her observations of Australian magpies taunting each other. She found it to be a way of putting themselves under stress, which raises their cortisol levels, and, in turn, effectively trains them to deal with higher levels of stress later in life.

For older folk, such a revelation might be a bit late, but you might be able to use the knowledge for children, grandkids and other young ones in your life. Putting them through a few mildly stressful episodes might make them more resilient to highly stressful events down the track.

Did you benefit from mildly stressful events earlier in life? How do you tackle stressful situations now? Why not share your experience and thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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  1. As you are experiencing, anxiety and stress can wear on the body and mind. You must not try to fight it, but deal with it in a healthy way. Find something that makes you feel better and distracts your mind from stressful thoughts. Do not try too hard to force motivation or willpower, because this will only backfire on you and make things worse

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