No one likes to feel stressed, but sometimes the sensation is necessary. Although we generally associate feelings of stress with negative health effects, there are a number of benefits to feeling stressed, and knowing this can help us use them to our advantage. Chronic stress is never a good thing, but stressful situations are inevitable, and when they happen, they may lead to positive outcomes.
"Our brains are wired for stress," says clinical health psychologist Dr. Lindsay Bira over email. "We have evolved to have a fight-flight-freeze (FFF) system that is activated when we perceive a threat. "Many years ago, the threat was a lion in the jungle or something else that was life-or-death related. The FFF system kept our ancestors alive. Now though, we don't have that kind of immediate threat so much as chronic daily stressors like traffic and work deadlines."
Most Americans are plagued by chronic stress, and 44 percent of Americans report that their stress levels have increased over the past five years, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2010.
"We as a population are chronically stressed, and there are some real health consequences of living in this FFF state," says Bira. "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."
Although chronic worrying can be unhealthy, minor amounts of stress can actually help you in these 11 ways.
1. It Motivates You
If you weren't very stressed about your big presentation coming up, you probably wouldn't take the time out to prepare for it. "When we feel a bit stressed, we are more likely to be motivated to move forward in ways that will benefit our situation," says Bira. "Cognitive dissonance is the stress we feel when our environment isn't matching our values, and that stress motivates us to change our environment or change our values so everything is in sync. Having a deadline is a good example of this."
2. It Can Improve Your Memory
Research from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that acute stress produced from a brief situation can improve working memory. This explains why some of us perform so well under pressure when we take tests or are grilled during in interview.
3. It Can Help With Learning
Brief moments of stress can help enhance your learning capabilities. A study from the journal Learning and Memory found that subjects who had their hand dunked in ice cold water prior to participating in two learning experiments performed better on both tests than those who hadn't been forced to be involved in the stressful situation.
4. It Helps You Bond
According to the APA, the level of the hormone oxytocin is higher in people who are under stressful conditions such as social isolation or unhappy relationships. This can strengthen your relationship with others because you're more likely to reach out to connect or bond.
5. It Makes You More Social
In addition to a greater propensity to bond with others, stress can help you exhibit more prosocial behaviors. A study from the University of Freiburg found that participants who went through a stressful condition and were paired with a partner during a group of games were more willing to trust the person they were partnered with and showed a greater propensity to share than those who weren't stressed.
6. It Can Help You Raise Your Kids
Becoming a mother is nerve-wracking, but a little bit of worry can actually benefit your offspring. A study from Johns Hopkins found that women who had mild to moderate stress during pregnancy had children with more advanced early childhood development. These kids had greater motor and developmental skills at age two than those of unstressed mothers.
7. It Can Help You Make Necessary Changes
"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 relationships," says Nikki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC over email. "If we view the stress as related, we will want to make a change."
8. It Temporarily Boosts Your Immunity
If you have something important coming up, your body will work harder to prevent you from getting sick. Although long-term stress is associated with an impaired immune system, short-term stress can help your body fight extra-hard against illness. A study from the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that short-term stress causes the adrenal glands to release hormones that help enact immune cells before they're even needed.
9. It Helps You Get A Better Workout
Physical stress, AKA exercise, can have a positive effect on your body. "When we exercise, we put the body under an acute state of stress. Heart rate goes up and blood pressure increases...and this is good for us. We are doing it in a controlled way and our bodies and brains respond well to that," Bira says.
10. It Can Give You An Adrenaline Rush
"The FFF response is activated in response to stressful situations that we might find enjoyable, like skydiving or public speaking," says Bira. "If we find it enjoyable, we are reaping the psychological benefits of the stress response that is included in the adrenaline rush. If you like recreational activities that activate that response, then the effects aren't negative."
11. It Helps You Become More Resilient
"We try to avoid stress all the time, but we actually want to accept it into our lives and learn how to manage it better," says Bira. "Each time we are stressed, we learn new ways to cope and move forward. Allow stress in and try different ways of getting through it to develop as a person. We grow the most when we're stretched the thinnest."
"Stress can be that little voice in our head that forces us to look at situations again and make sure that they are the right fit for us," says Martinez. Sometimes, we just need to listen to it.
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