Can stress ever be good for you?

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Stress, understandably, is a term with a range of negative connotations. Prolonged, chronic stress can often come about as a result of tough working conditions or trying personal circumstances and have an adverse effect on mental and physical health.

But is there a level of stress which can be beneficial to us?

In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the effects of stress and adrenaline on the body, whether they can be advantageous to our mental and physical performance, and if so, how much is too much.

Why do we become stressed?

In simple terms, the body produces certain chemicals when it is faced with a situation that requires a quick and efficient response (often referred to as fight or flight).

When we become threatened or have to tackle a tough situation, our bodies generate hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These ready us for swift action, causing our heart rate to increase, our breathing to speed up, and our muscles to become tense. This is essentially our body’s way of helping us to maneuver ourselves out of danger.

However, we might also experience a similar sensation (albeit on a smaller scale) when we participate in sports, play computer games, deliver a presentation, or watch a horror film.

Adrenaline causes our senses to become heightened so that we are more alert and able to perceive our surroundings better, and thus respond quickly. (For instance, this is why we might become more ‘jumpy’ and sensitive to the slightest stimulus during a horror movie.)

Our bodies are only conditioned to maintain this state for so long. Once we’ve, in theory, removed ourselves from danger, the effects of adrenaline will subside, our heart rate will return to normal, and our muscles and senses will relax.

How can stress benefit us?

As already discussed, when we experience stress in small amounts, this can boost our physical and mental functions, so that we perform well at a task.

Stress can also be a great motivator. Some people may feel that they work best when under pressure to deliver and see it as a necessity to help them achieve more. Others may even thrive in times of stress; some theorists have likened it to a drug. In the short term, stress has been found to work the dopamine centers in the brain. Musicians and actors often describe a ‘rush’ when they perform in front of large crowds, and this could perhaps be at least partly explained by the stress-dopamine connection.

While the above-described effects of stress may not benefit our health as such, they might benefit our situation. For instance, performing well at work due to a small amount of stress may improve our standing, and in some cases lead to rewards.

However, much research into the mental and physiological benefits of acute stress has also been undertaken.

For example, acute stress is thought by some to boost the function of the immune system. One study by researchers at Stanford University found that simulating the ‘fight or flight’ metabolization in rats caused more immune cells to enter their bloodstream.

Scientists from the University of Berkeley have also found that acute stress can have a positive effect on memory and recollection in rats.

But as with any theories developed largely in studies performed on animals, the results may not necessarily translate to humans; so while they may be interesting and form the basis of further research, it’s important to interpret such results with caution.

When does stress become bad for health?

It’s crucial to differentiate between acute and chronic forms of stress.

Acute stress, or that which is experienced on a very short-term basis, is more likely to pass after the event or situation responsible has been resolved.

For example, if someone experiences acute stress as a result of having a professional deadline to meet, once the deadline has been satisfied, stress may well dissipate.

Chronic stress however is different. This might be the result of a persistent problem, such as a constantly overwhelming workload, or difficult circumstances in someone’s personal life.

The psychological impact of chronic stress is fairly well known. Persistent stress can adversely affect mental well-being in several ways, leading to issues such as anxiety and depression.

However, chronic stress can also have a detrimental effect on several aspects of physical health too.

One meta-analysis of studies undertaken by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that while acute stress helped to boost immunity in certain ways, chronic stress was generally observed to lower it; thus increasing susceptibility to infections and illness.

Many will know from experience that stress can cause tension headaches, as well as muscle pain. It can also interfere with sleep, and make us more prone to tiredness and exhaustion (which can, in turn, can lower immunity).

number of studies have also suggested a strong link between stress and inflammation. It is thought that chronic stress inhibits the immune system’s capacity to regulate inflammatory response; and as such, stress is thought to be a key factor in the flare-up of inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis, Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis, and (research suggests) rheumatoid arthritis.

What should I do about stress?

It’s perfectly normal to feel stressed from time to time due to the demands life throws up. As we’ve discussed, when we experience stress in small amounts, and manage it well, it can actually be helpful.

But it’s important to be able to recognize when stress is becoming a more present, continuous problem.

You might be experiencing potentially harmful levels of stress if you:

  • feel as though you are constantly worrying
  • have trouble relaxing
  • develop physical manifestations, such as a headache or muscle pain
  • become easily agitated
  • cannot sleep soundly

People who feel as though they are living with perpetual stress should address it.

If your job is the cause, then speaking to your employer or line manager may help. Obviously, it depends on the type of work you do, but your employer might be able to offer assistance by talking through and addressing your concerns, easing your workload, or directing you to a counseling service.

Otherwise, approaching your doctor can help too. If they are unable to assist you themselves, they will be able to point you in the direction of services that can.

If you’re concerned about stress, advice is also available from organizations such as Mind or Anxiety UK.

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Tom Perry, M.D., attended Tulane University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. degree in Parasitology. He received his M.D. degree in 1983 from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where he gained extensive research experience, including studies conducted through the National Institutes of Health.