10 Surprising Ways Stress Is Good for Your Body
Stress is almost always the bad guy in life, but—surprise!—moderate amounts of it can actually make you stronger, smarter, and happier.
Stress can make your brain grow
You know the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” That can be applied to stress, as studies have shown that short periods of stress can actually help the brain improve. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that after they placed rats in a short-term stressful situation (they were immobilized in their cage for a few hours), the experience doubled the growth of new brain cells. The rodents also did better on a memory test later on. “We think the same thing happens in people—manageable stress increases alertness and performance,” study author Daniela Kaufer, PhD, a professor of integrative biology, told Berkeley Wellness. “Moderate and short-lived stress—like an upcoming exam or preparing to deliver a speech in public—improves cognitive performance.” Check out some more popular myths about your brain that just aren’t true.
Stress can improve your memory
When your brain cells multiply, your memory can improve. Biologically speaking, it makes sense, because animals who are better at remembering dangerous situations can avoid them in the future, which is a classic example of survival of the fittest. “If an animal encounters a predator and manages to escape, it’s important to remember where and when that encounter happened,” Kaufer told Berkeley Wellness. Likewise, “if you’re walking down an alley and somebody threatens you, it’s important to remember exactly where you were in order to avoid that alley in the future. The brain is constantly responding to stress.” Results of an animal study from the State University of New York at Buffalo backs this up: After learning a maze, rodents who had been stressed remembered the way out quicker than those who were relaxed. So cramming for that test might actually work! Beware of these things that get way harder when you’re stressed.
Stress can give you energy
Short-term stress can bump up your energy a notch or two, especially if it’s the good kind. “Positive stress, known as ‘eustress,’ is an experience that offers a beneficial form of arousal,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living with Depression and a psychology professor at Adelphi University. “Situations that challenge us, or are exciting and stimulating, place stress on our mind and body—but the experience doesn’t necessarily cause discomfort. Instead,” she adds, “eustress motivates us, sharpens our senses, and helps us problem solve successfully.” Good stress actually creates new neural pathways and stimulates healthful endorphins. We’re talking about challenges like giving a speech, receiving a promotion at work, performing on stage, having a baby, or moving to a new home. Think of it as a kind of physical exercise—it puts stress on the body but it makes you feel pumped up rather than depleted.
Stress can keep you from getting sick
It’s true that long-term, chronic stress can make you more prone to illness—but short-term “good” stress can actually provide some protection against getting sick. “Eustress increases your immune functioning,” Dr. Serani says. A study from Stanford University shows that rats who were stressed briefly had a surge of immune cell response, which makes the immune system better prepared to ward off illness. “You don’t want to keep your immune system on high alert at all times,” study author Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a press release. “Nature uses the brain, the organ most capable of detecting an approaching challenge, to signal that detection to the rest of the body by directing the release of stress hormones.” There is even evidence that experiencing stress before getting a vaccine could help make them more effective. But you should be on the lookout for these signs stress is making you sick.
Stress may make your kids more savvy
According to a study from Johns Hopkins University, kids of moms who were mild to moderately stressed while pregnant were more advanced by age 2. “Our findings should provide relief to women who are experiencing the normal anxieties and stresses common to the demands of modern life,” study author Janet A. DiPietro, PhD, said in a press release. “In essence, women can stop worrying that their emotional state is harming their unborn baby.” It’s not a good idea for pregnant women to seek out stress, but if you’re feeling a bit anxious, it’s OK. Other studies have shown that those who experience brief stress in early life—like a short separation from their mother—actually had less anxiety and better brain function as adults. Longer stress in infancy and childhood is still associated with negative outcomes, though.
Stress helps you get in the zone
The surge in energy that short-term stress gives you can also help you focus. Psychologists call this feeling “flow,” and good stress can help you achieve it. “A stressor like running a marathon, taking an exam, starting a new job, giving a presentation, meeting a new friend, taking on a new hobby, getting married, or becoming a new parent will kick-start neurobiology in a way that will get you into the zone,” Dr. Serani says. This is why some people work better under pressure—the short-term stress helps your brain zero in on the one task it needs to do, and shut out everything else. Beware of these ways to reduce stress that can actually backfire.
Stress can give you confidence
When you’re facing a challenge that’s not out of the realm of possibility for you to meet, you’re experiencing stress that’s actually going to help you succeed. “What research tells us about eustress is that it accesses our neuroendocrine system differently than distress, which is stress that’s too overwhelming,” Dr. Serani says. “Eustress stimulates more health-enhancing biochemistry like endorphins than distress does.” For example, if you feel your heart starting to race before a big presentation, think of it as your body rising to the challenge, rather than your body freaking out. Making that tiny mental switch can help you channel good stress, so it’s more likely to help your performance than hurt it. Successfully meeting challenges can make you feel resilient and confident, studies confirm.
Stress makes you better adjusted
Dealing with some amount of stress is a normal part of life, and those who can look at it in a positive way may enjoy more beneficial and fewer negative effects. “Psychologists have found that the ability to embrace stress requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty,” Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford psychologist and the author of The Upside of Stress, told Stanford News. “It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, and it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you stronger.” The key, she says, is not to avoid stress, but to find healthy ways to manage it when it happens. To do this, view your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating. Think of it as energy you can use to finesse the stress in your life. Make sure you know about these telltale signs you’re more stressed than you realize.
Stress can help you handle more stress
It sounds silly, but managing stress helps you manage more stress. Psychologists call this stress inoculation. “The ability to learn from stress is built into the basic biology of the stress response,” McGonigal says in a university press release. “Stress leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it. Going through the experience gives your brain and body a stress vaccine.” This is why, she says, those who have to thrive under stress, like emergency responders, elite athletes, and even NASA astronauts, go through stress training. Think of stress “an opportunity to learn and grow,” McGonigal says.
You’re more likely to see your life as meaningful
Going through stressful situations can make you appreciate life more. In a study from Florida State University, the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, researchers asked participants to agree or disagree with the statement, “In general, I consider my life to be meaningful.” Surprisingly, those who had experienced more stressful life events thought of their lives as having more meaning. Dr. McGonigal says this could be possibly because those who are more engaged in activities and relationships are more invested in life. So if you reframe how you view stress in this way, you can encourage its positive effects. “When you think about stress, remember that the word itself doesn’t always mean something bad,” Dr. Serani says. “Moderate amounts of eustress can help you cope with life in meaningful ways.” Read on for these easy ways to keep stress at a manageable level.