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The secret benefits of stress

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know there’s a strong emphasis these days on how stressed out we are as a nation, and recent research has reflected this fact.

In 2014 a study by the Australian Psychological Society found that 64% of Australians reported that stress was having at least some impact on their mental health.  

Similarly, 72% of Australians said that stress was having at least some impact on their physical health.

In response to this, there are a growing number of health-focused industries tapping into the “stressed out” market.  

Such businesses offer strategies and lifestyle changes that can help people alleviate or avoid stress as much as possible.

But is all stress bad, or are there some benefits from having a moderate level of it in our lives?

Good stress vs bad stress

Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress and a business school lecturer at Stanford, says that stress can actually make us stronger, smarter and happier.

“Stress isn’t always harmful,” she told the Stanford News. “Once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.”

It’s something that health psychologist, Marny Lishman, agrees with.

She says that, while major stress can be damaging to our body if not managed well, we are built for acute stress.  She adds that, if we didn’t have such useful mechanisms to get us away from environmental stressors quick smart, we wouldn’t be here.

“Stress is useful for our survival and is definitely not all bad,” she says.  “A moderate level of stress is good because it makes you get stuff done.”

Without moderate stress, Lishman believes that we probably wouldn’t be motivated to do much, wouldn’t grow as a person and we wouldn’t perform as well.  

Additionally, at a neuroplasticity level, we wouldn’t have brain changes through learning.

“If we have a job that needs to be done, and we’re feeling a bit stressed about it, we often go into a more focused way of thinking,” says Lishman.

 “If we didn’t focus on that one main stressor, we’d be spreading ourselves too thin, and nothing would get done well,” she adds.

As a result of this, stress can lead to personal achievement and help us face things that we may have previously feared.   Consequentially, this increases our confidence, self-esteem and resilience.

“If you’ve been challenged in the past, but appropriately responded to it, then you’ll be more efficient in coping with it in the future,” says Lishman.

But it’s not just our behaviours and mindsets that can be positively impacted by stress, it’s also our bodies.

Stress as a development tool

Research undertaken in 2013 at the University of California found that putting rats under moderate levels of stress for a brief period of time increased the neural stem cells in their brain.  The result of this was improved mental agility.

The same research also found that the stressed rats performed better on a memory test two weeks after the stressful event – the time that it took for the new nerve cells to become mature.

“Memories are often extremely useful for our survival, because they’re important learnings that we’ve had about life,” says Lishman.

“Having a bit of stress can elicit these memories (good or bad), because the inner part of our brain takes us back to that time and our experience of it. It helps inform us as to whether we should do something similar or not in the present.”

Vanessa Bennett is a high performance coach and global CEO of Next Evolution Performance.  In her role, she teaches people about how to turn stress around to make it a positive.

She says that people’s ability to do this usually depends on their perception of stress.

“You can have a situation where one person views it as highly stressful and another person won’t perceive it that way at all,” she says.

“People with the ability (natural or learned) to control their mindset to view a situation as less stressful than others find that they stay in the productive part of the stress zone and keep powering through.”

Performance anxiety

Bennett notes that neuroscience shows us that there’s an optimal level of stress for performance. Basically, too little stress will not get us performing at our best, yet too much means our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain used for rational thinking) begins to loose this optimal functionality.

However, she adds that positive psychology studies have shown that optimism helps people to view certain situations as less stressful than they would otherwise find them.

“The right amount of stress is great, and knowing how to deal with stress so that you don’t view is so badly is also great,” says Bennett.  

“But without these tools, and knowing the right stress levels for you, your health can really suffer.

“This is why it’s so important to learn how to you use your stress for good and not evil.”

Jo Hartley

About the person who wrote this

Jo Hartley

Jo Hartley is a freelance features writer whose work has appeared in multiple publications both online and in print. When Jo’s not writing, she can be found pondering her next healthy lifestyle attempt whilst eating Nutella straight from the jar.

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