We often hear how stress can wreak havoc on the body. It can cause insomnia and weight gain and increase your blood pressure. But despite the physical effects, many of us live, breathe, and eat stress — not by choice, of course. Stress is sometimes like a black cloud we can’t escape. Even when we think the skies are sunny, stress rears its ugly head, snapping us back to reality.
As a long-time anxiety suffer, I have a love-hate relationship with stress. This might sound strange. But although stress takes my mind on an irrational rollercoaster from time to time, it’s ironic that I feel the most energetic and prolific when under pressure.
Don’t misunderstand me. I would love to wake up in the morning to roses and sunshine without a single stressor in the world, but we all know that’s not going to happen. So rather than nurture the elusive dream of a stress-free existence, I see the glass half full, and you should, too. Because whether you realize it or not, the stress might make you a smarter, healthier, and a stronger person.
Good stress vs. bad stress
Some people think any type of stress is bad, but this isn’t the case. In truth, all stress is not created equal. Obviously, when you’re overwhelmed and under pressure it's hard to see the silver lining. And if someone told you stress is beneficial to your health, you might laugh them off or suggest they have their head examined. But there’s validity in this statement.
This doesn’t mean you should make your life as complicated and stressful as possible. The saying “stress kills” couldn’t be a truer statement. When chronic stress — which is the bad type — dominates your thoughts day in and day out, it does a number on your body, causing anxiety, tiredness, high blood pressure, depression, etc.
But although you should do whatever it takes to avoid this type of relentless mental abuse, you should welcome moderate doses of stress with open arms. Humans have a flight-or-fight response, which is an inborn physiological reaction that occurs when they’re under attack. Your body is wired to handle everyday, normal stressors, and when your natural defenses kick in, your well-being improves. So, before you coin stress as the “bad guy,” consider some of these surprising health benefits.
1. It improves cognitive function
Unless you’re at an amusement park and about to experience the ride of your life, you might not enjoy that panicky feeling in the pit of your stomach. On the other hand, if this feeling occurs in response to moderate stress levels, the upside is that the pressure and nervousness you feel can potentially boost your brain’s performance. This is because moderate stress strengthens the connection between neurons in your brain, improving memory and attention span, and helping you become more productive.
In one study, researchers at the University of Berkeley found that in lab rats “brief stressful events caused the stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells” resulting in increased mental performance after two weeks.
Better brain performance likely explains why many people, including myself, work better when under stress. For example, I’ve had clients throw me last-minute assignments with tight deadlines. After accepting the work, sometimes I panic because I bit off more than I can chew. But in every situation, I’ve gotten through the assignment and have received positive feedback, even though I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked.
If you doubt the health benefits of stress on your brain, do a self-evaluation of your performance on days when you’re experiencing a higher amount of stress at work. You may discover that you’re more focused and productive than on low-stress days.
2. It helps you dodge a cold
The fight-or-flight response you feel when stressed is designed to protect you, whether it’s from injury or another perceived threat. What’s interesting about low doses of the stress hormone is that it also helps protect from infections. Moderate stress stimulates the production of a chemical called interleukins and gives the immune system a quick boost to protect against illnesses — unlike its evil twin, chronic stress, which lowers immunity and increases inflammation.
So, the next time you experience a shock to the system and your stress level elevates, remember this benefit. If a virus or cold spreads around your school or office, the “good” stress in your life might be the only drug you need to stay healthy.
3. It makes you a tough cookie
I hate everything about stress. I hate the way it makes me feel, and I hate how stressful situations consume my mind — even if it’s only for a few hours. On the flip-side, stress has helped me become a stronger person over the years.
There’s no denying how going through a tough situation builds resiliency. When you experience something for the first time, you might think it’s the worst situation and crumble because you don’t know how to cope. But as you confront different situations and overcome various problems, you train yourself to deal with similar incidents in the future.
Don’t just believe me. Think about a tough situation you’ve dealt with in the past. How did you handle the stress when it first happened? Now, fast-forward to the present. Have you dealt with a similar situation recently? If so, did you handle the problem differently the second time around? In all likelihood, you did. Since you knew what to expect and you understood the possible outcomes, you probably felt a greater sense of control. And because of this, you didn’t give up or crack under pressure. This is how stress made you stronger.
4. It enhances child development
Maybe you’ve heard or read stories of women who dealt with severe depression and anxiety during their pregnancies and gave birth prematurely or had babies with low birth weights. It’s true that elevated stress levels can have a negative impact on both mom and baby. As such, most expecting mothers do everything humanly possible to stay healthy and minimize stress and anxiety while pregnant.
Although chronic stress can negatively affect pregnancy, the good news is that moderate levels of normal stress during pregnancy won’t harm a baby. A 2006 Johns Hopkins study followed 137 women from mid-pregnancy to their children’s second birthdays. The study found that babies born to women who experienced mild to moderate stress during pregnancy had more advanced early developmental skills by the age of 2 than babies born to unstressed mothers.
Of course, this study doesn't suggest giving stress the red-carpet treatment while pregnant. But if you deal with periodic everyday stresses, don’t panic. It may actually help your baby’s development.
Stress in a nut shell
Until now, you may have wanted to bottle up all stress and toss it into a fiery pit. Now that you’re aware of the surprising health benefits of stress, remember that it can be a friend you didn’t know you wanted. The key is identifying good stress from bad stress. As long as it’s not chronic, stress can be a positive addition to your life.