We all know that stress can be mentally and physically unhealthy. But did you know about the benefits of stress? A bit of stress and anxiety can actually be good for you. Here’s how.
Stress is good!
Stress can create havoc on our mind and body. It can increase our blood pressure, affect our appetite and lead to weight gain and insomnia. But despite all the drawbacks, stress can actually be beneficial for us.
Stress is a natural response and we cannot escape despite our best attempts. Clinical health psychologist Dr. Lindsay Bira explains “Our brains are wired for stress. We have evolved to have a fight-flight-freeze (FFF) system that is activated when we perceive a threat.”
However, there are several benefits of stress. According to a 2017 study, stress has both harmful and beneficial effects. The study concluded that “the beneficial effects of stress involve preserving homeostasis of cells/species, which leads to continued survival.” However, the benefits of stress largely depend on whether it is good stress or bad stress. Dr. Bira adds “We as a population are chronically stressed, and there are some real health consequences of living in this FFF state. However, there are also surprising health benefits of this state as well. It depends on the type of stress and how we let it affect us.”
Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham shares a similar perspective. He believes that our fight-or-flight response is not necessarily a negative thing. It is meant to protect us, not harm us. However, when stress becomes chronic and unmanageable, it can start to affect our health and wellbeing negatively.
Daniela Kaufer, associate professor at UC Berkeley, studies the biology of stress and clarifies that “We’re learning that moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits. The stress response is designed to help us react when something potentially threatening happens, to help us deal with it and learn from it.”
Benefits of stress
Although excessive worrying and long terms stress can be harmful, here are 11 surprising benefits of stress when it comes in low levels:
1. Stress boosts brain power
Short, manageable stressors can help to stimulate the generation of brain chemicals known as neurotrophins. It can also help to improve the connection between neurons in the brain. Research indicates that short-term, moderate stress can help to boost memory, improve behavioral and cognitive performance and alertness.
One study has found that under specific circumstances, stress can actually help to improve our memory (McEwen and Lupien, 2002. Kaufer adds “Manageable stress increases alertness and performance. And by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, stress improves memory.”
2. Stress boosts problem-solving abilities
One of the most helpful benefits of stress is that it can help us with our problem solving skills. When we worry about a big decision, it can actually help us in taking the decision. Dr. Larina Kase says “Stress illuminates our values. If we didn’t care about something, we wouldn’t worry about it. Research shows that we tend to be happiest when we go with our gut.”
3. Stress improves immune system
“Stress in short bursts can be helpful to the immune system,” explains clinical psychiatrist and author Mark Goulston, MD. This is just one of the benefits of stress. According to a 2012 Stanford study, research on animals has revealed that mild stress led to the production of a “massive mobilization” of various forms of immune cells in the bloodstreams of lab rats.
Dr. Shelton explains “When the body responds to stress, it prepares itself for the possibility of injury or infection. One way it does this is by producing extra interleukins—chemicals that help regulate the immune system – providing at least a temporary defensive boost.”
4. Stress improves relationships
One of the benefits of stress is that it helps you bond better with your loved ones. The American Psychological Association (APA) found that the amount of oxytocin hormone is higher in individuals who experience frequent stressful conditions like unhappy relationships and social isolation. This encourages us to reach out to our loved ones and connect better.
5. Stress enhances resilience
When you learn to overcome stressful situations in life, it helps to prepare you to face future challenges. By getting exposed to stress and learning to manage it, you actually become more resilient. Dr. Shelton says that frequent exposure to stressful events offers us “the chance to develop both a physical and psychological sense of control.”
A 2013 study by the University of California San Francisco showed that moderate regular stress can help to prevent and protect against oxidative damage to our DNA and RNA and improve psychobiological resilience.
6. Stress boosts learning capabilities
Low levels of stress can actually help you enhance your learning skills. According to a 2007 study from the journal Learning and Memory, participants performed better in learning experiments after “insertion of the dominant hand into ice water for 60 sec.” The study added “Results revealed positive effects of stress on performance”
7. Stress improves motivation
Eustress or good stress encourages us to complete a task despite facing certain challenges. Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Michael Genovese says “Eustress helps us stay motivated, work toward goals, and feel good about life.”
When we view stress as a challenge that we can overcome, instead of as an obstacle, it can motivate us to be more productive and effective. Richard Shelton, MD adds “Think about a deadline: It’s staring you in the face, and it’s going to stimulate your behavior to really manage the situation effectively, rapidly, and more productively.”
8. Stress helps to make changes
Nikki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC explains “A little stress can propel us to make changes that we know that we need to make, such as changing jobs or ending an unfulfilling relationship. If we view the stress as related, we will want to make a change.”
Read also: 5 Tips For Lowering Your Stress Level
9. Stress improves creativity
Low to moderate stress can also help to make you more creative. This is one of the benefits of stress that is mostly experienced by artists and writers engaged in creative processes. Creative individuals tend to be more creative when they are brainstorming ideas and feel frustrated about the quality of the final outcome of their creation.
Psychologist and author Larina Kase, PhD explains “Stress often precedes or accompanies creative breakthroughs. If our minds are totally calm and relaxed, they don’t need a reason to see things differently. We’re likely to feel an increase in stress when we hit on a new path because change is typically associated with new stress. Your creative output feels intimidating because it’s different for you and you don’t know how others will react (to it).”
10. Stress enhances fitness
Putting stress on your body through weight lifting or cardio exercises for at least 45 minutes can help to improve our health and fitness significantly. Jessica Matthews, MS, American Council on Exercise (ACE) personal trainer and group fitness instructor, explains “The stress that moderate exercise provides is quite healthy and provides many positive effects.”
She adds “From a physiological perspective, the demands being placed on the body during exercise help it to become more efficient in completing everyday activities. In fact, research has even shown that exercise itself may make us more resilient to stress overall.”