The Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress


When I need to unwind, there’s nothing I
love more than an “experience.” Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, Zip-lining
or even just riding roller coasters at Coney Island. These aren’t relaxing activities by any
stretch. In fact, they get my adrenaline pumping, so
physiologically I’m experiencing “stress,” but I still enjoy them, and I still feel better
after them. Stress usually gets a bad rap – some studies
have linked chronic stress to depression, obesity, and heart disease – but my happy
experiences with briefly stressful activities got me thinking – are there times when a
little stress can be good for us? Now scientists have actually done lots of
studies on the potential benefits of short-term, acute stress. A group of researchers at the University of
Wisconsin wanted to know if the stress hormone cortisol affects how well people learn and
remember – a study that’s relevant for students cramming for exams all over the world! Now cortisol is naturally released when our
“fight or flight” systems are activated. Chronically high levels of cortisol are linked
to high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive issues, anxiety and depression. But in spurts, cortisol works as a signal
to increase dopamine which improves perception and attention. In this study, researchers gave participants
a placebo, 20mg, or 40mg of cortisol. Then they gave them a list of words to memorize. Two days later, people who received a 20mg
dose did the best job of recognizing the words that they’d been asked to memorize. So a little stress can actually help us learn. Beyond a boost in memory, researchers were
curious about how these small bursts of stress could impact our relationships with others
– would stress bring us together or push us apart? They put people through stress-inducing tasks
including public speaking and job applications, verbal math, and then measured their prosocial
behaviors compared to control subjects. Stressed participants were more trustworthy
and more likely to share in a game where they could compete or cooperate to win money. This result is supported by how communities
respond to disasters in the real world. Research shows that people are more cooperative,
open, and giving after a disaster. Acute stress can bring communities together
too. The way we think about stress can also have
a huge influence on the way it affects us. People who view stress as potentially beneficial
are less negatively impacted by adverse life events than people who think stress can only
be bad. Think about presenting in front of a crowd. Everyone has a physiological stress response
to public speaking: cortisol levels and heart rate go up, you might feel a little nauseous
or jittery. Would you describe this as anxiety or excitement? The physical sensation is the same, but someone
who describes that feeling as “excitement” is more likely to enjoy public speaking than
someone who describes it as “anxiety.” Simply learning that symptoms of stress may
be beneficial can lead to healthier responses to stress in the future. So while chronic high stress is known to be
harmful, short-term, acute stress isn’t necessarily bad. Instead of focusing on the negatives, think
about a time that you enjoyed stress, like during a horror movie, or while riding a roller
coaster. Think of times when stress helped you cram
for an exam or when a stressful experience brought you closer to a friend or colleague. Reframing your thinking about stress can have
real benefits for how you experience day-to-day challenges. So instead of being stressed about stress
– try to focus on how you can use it to your advantage!