Stress Benefits in Small Doses

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been extremely stressed out.

Yeah, us too, and in case your doctor didn’t tell you (perhaps you’re stressed because you don’t have a doctor), living in a state of high stress for an extended period of time is incredibly detrimental to your health.


Well, stress causes obvious negative physiological effects like increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, insomnia, a weakened immune system, as well as headaches and chronic muscle tension, to name a few. But it also causes more subtle psychological problems, like a decreased libido or a decreased sense of self-worth due to stress-related weight-gain.

One study at New York University found that even a small amount of stress can make it difficult to control your emotions. Another at the University of California San Francisco, discovered a link between chronic stress and the inability of our cells to regenerate as quickly as they are designed to, causing premature signs of aging.

It’s not very likely that anyone can get rid of stress completely since it’s biologically programmed into us; when there is a stressor present in our environment, our body responds chemically by releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Short of locking ourselves in an attic for our entire lives, there’s not much we can do to avoid every stressor.

There’s a silver lining, though. Most of the worst effects of stress are a result of chronic stress, that is, stress that doesn’t go away for long periods of time. As it turns out, a small amount of stress is not harmful and may actually benefit us.

Here are the top 10 ways in which a little stress might be good for you.

It can help you leap tall buildings.

Okay, not quite that, but stress is at the heart of our fight-or-flight response. It pumps adrenaline into our blood in response to danger and is the reason we’re able to jump quickly out of the way of a moving vehicle, for example, or lift a car that’s fallen on a friend, or perform other seemingly impossible feats when we need to most.

It can protect against some diseases, like Alzheimer’s and breast cancer.

Stress keeps your mind sharp, which strengthens your neurological connections, so some researchers hypothesize it can ward off Alzheimer’s. It also suppresses estrogen, which may help reduce the risk of breast cancer.

It can help you live longer–maybe.

Strangely enough, the trick here seems to be your mental attitude towards stress. In a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 29,000 people were asked to rate their stress level and indicate how much it affected their lives. The mortality rate for those people was then tracked via death records over the next eight years. The results showed that people who said they experienced a lot of stress and that it negatively impacted their lives were much more likely to die than people who said they experienced a lot of stress but had a positive outlook on it.

It can help you learn.

Because stress closely affects the functioning of the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center, it may increase your ability to learn and retain information. So tell your teacher that procrastinating might not be such a bad thing after all…

Closely related to learning, new research suggests that acute stress, or stress that comes on and goes away quickly, may improve memory, though chronic stress greatly impairs it.

It can help heal areas in your body that need healing.

Stress calls the attention of your immune system to bodily injuries, like a cut or bruise, but it can also alert your immune system to problems that don’t have overt manifestations. Stress hormones thus redistribute the body’s resources. Researchers are experimenting with the implications of these findings, which could help in the fight against certain kinds of diseases.

It can help you maintain good habits.

This one is a bit complicated–researchers have observed that when people are stressed they engage in activities that require less will power. The activities that require the least amount of will power are habits, which are usually so ingrained in us that we don’t have to think about them at all.

In one research group, students who were in the habit of going to the gym were more likely to continue going to the gym during periods of high stress, such as finals. You might think the stress and lack of time would make them forgo exercising, but because it was already habit, they didn’t have to put any effort into the decision and thus continued to go regularly. The same held true for students who customarily read the morning paper.

It can help you get in shape.

Guess what’s one of the best ways to get rid of stress? Exercise. Going for a run, a walk, or a swim will help reduce stress while making you more fit. It’s a win-win!

It can motivate you.

The shot of energy to our system delivered by stress can ignite your engines when you need it most, like if you’re hungover at work. Not that we’ve ever tried that.

It can get the creative juices flowing.

Psychologist Larina Kase, PhD, author of The Confident Leader: How the Most Successful People Go from Effective to Exceptional, hypothesizes that stress typically comes before or with a “creative breakthrough,” because it causes us to think outside the box.

It can make you more adaptive.

Practice makes perfect. While it’s not an ideal lifestyle to constantly be put in stressful situations, each time you navigate your way through one will make you more prepared for the next. According to one psychologist, that’s the basis behind Navy SEAL training: repeated exposure to high-stress situations acclimates them to the feeling so that they are more in control when something goes wrong in the field.

Feature photo courtesy of Bhernandez.