The hidden benefits of stress
Several years ago, scientists released a study that forced experts to rethink their understanding of this basic biological response. The researchers looked at data from nearly 30,000 people who participated in the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, which asked respondents about their experience of stress in the previous 12 months and to estimate how much it had adversely affected their health.
After checking death records through 2006, the investigators found that the people who said they had high levels of stress and believed it negatively affected their health had a 43% increased risk of dying prematurely.
"But those who reported high levels of stress and didn't believe it was harmful had the lowest risk of dying of any group in the study—even lower than those who said they had very little stress," says health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In fact, these people experienced stress as beneficial to their health. Other studies have confirmed the notion that stress can have positive effects on health and well-being.
Research shows that stress can actually bolster the immune system. Within 15 minutes of a stressful event, the body mobilises pathogen-fighting cells in the bloodstream, which then fan out through the body to help it mount a more robust immune response. "The type of immune response that could help you fight a cold or infection is enhanced by short-term stress," says professor of psychiatry Firdaus Dhabhar, who has conducted research on how stress can strengthen or suppress immune function.
Under stress, the pituitary gland releases oxytocin, especially during uncomfortable social interactions. This hormone has been called the moral molecule because it enhances empathy and strengthens social bonds. And in the heat of a stressful moment, it does something remarkable: It makes people want to reach out to others for help.
"Connecting with friends is one of the healthiest things you can do—it's a powerful strategy for helping you become more resilient to stress," says professor of psychiatry Steven Southwick. Building a network of family and friends will help protect you during adversity, and you deepen your connections and grow stronger when you face stress together. Even cortisol, the hormone that can be damaging to health when released during long-term stress, may help people bounce back after a serious trauma such as a car accident. Research on people who've experienced a traumatic event shows that those who have a stronger stress response, including higher levels of cortisol, are more likely to make an effective recovery. "We don't usually think of the stress response as helpful," says McGonigal. "But in many ways it's your best ally during difficult challenges."
From a physiological standpoint, stress looks a lot like what happens during moments of joy and courage.
When stress is more serious
Beyond everyday aggravations, even severe stress—like a cancer diagnosis, divorce or the death of a loved one—can lead to growth in the aftermath of the event, although there are negative effects, too.
Many of the most harmful consequences of stress, like chronic inflammation, overeating, and memory impairment, occur when cortisol stays elevated for an extended period, as happens with trauma. But emotionally, it's a different story. Many people who have faced difficult ordeals actually experience post-traumatic growth, in which their tribulations serve as a springboard for positive life changes.
"At least half and maybe two-thirds of people who've faced trauma report some kind of positive development or personal growth afterward," says professor of psychology Richard Tedeschi, along with colleague Lawrence Calhoun, identified the phenomenon. That doesn't mean that people who have faced a terrible setback should feel happy they had to endure it. "But those who are willing to face their troubles, rather than avoid and try to ignore them, are more likely to come away with an enhanced sense of purpose, a deeper sense of meaning, or stronger connections with loved ones than those who aren't," says Tedeschi.
Seeing problems as positive
When someone who hates public speaking has to give a presentation to a local organisation, a typical stress response would be a heightened heart rate and constriction of blood vessels, one of the reasons stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. But if the same person is able to think of the stressful feelings as healthy and helpful—for example, by viewing them as the source of energy necessary to stay focused and speak more powerfully—the blood vessels stay relaxed.
Granted, it's not easy for people to simply change their attitude toward stress, but it's worth trying. "From a physiological perspective, the combination of increased heart rate and relaxed blood vessels looks a lot like what happens during moments of joy and courage—and that one change could have a positive impact on your cardiovascular health," says McGonigal.
Crum's research has shown that viewing stress as helpful rather than harmful is associated with not only better health but also greater emotional well-being, increased life satisfaction, and improved work productivity. People who are able to adopt a "stress is good" mind-set create more positive emotions in part because they've stopped worrying about the fact that they're stressed.
Believing stress is helpful doesn't change the facts of the situation: You might still have a financial problem or a spouse who is ill. "But you feel a little more hopeful and confident," says Crum. "And those positive emotions can go a long way toward keeping us motivated and changing our health in positive ways."
How to change your mind about stress
Psychologist Alia Crum suggests steps for rethinking your relationship with stress.
Make a list of some of the unproductive things you do when you're feeling pressured, such as procrastinate or raid the refrigerator. The next time you're engaging in one of these activities, the list can act as a trigger to help you recognise what's happening.
At that point, name your stress by saying something like "I'm stressed because I have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time." Noting your stress this way shifts the activity in your brain from the automatic, emotional centers, like the amygdala (the brain's fear centre), to the more conscious, thoughtful areas, like the prefrontal cortex. That allows you to feel more in control.
Research shows that avoiding stress can increase anxiety and worry. Instead, recognise that the more stressed you are, the more you care about the situation, and try to identify what issues or values are at stake. "It's easier to embrace stress when you see that it's connected with something deeply meaningful," says Crum.
It can also be helpful to consciously reframe some of the feelings. Seeing the jitters before a speech as excitement rather than stress, for instance, can bolster your confidence and performance.
Think about whether your response to stress works against you or helps you meet your goals. If you're upset that you weren't invited to a party, recognise that it's a sign that social contact is meaningful to you. Then, instead of shunning your friends for excluding you, reach out to one you're close to and plan a dinner together. "By understanding why you're stressed, you can focus the energy it gives you on trying to achieve your goals," says Crum.