May is National Mental Health month and stress is always top of mind.
But what about the other side of stress that we don’t hear much about — the benefits of stress? We all know (and can feel) how stress can bad for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Being overstressed can put you at risk for a plethora of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, depression, and metabolic syndrome. (1) But stress doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Your body’s natural response to stressful situations is meant to be protective — not destructive. It’s when you let stress get the best of you that it poses risks to your health.
Your body is built to handle everyday challenges, from boosting brain power to immunity — a little fire under you can actually help your body and brain become more resilient.
How Can Stress Be Good For You?
1. It can help boost cognitive function.
As I discussed in a previous post, your body responds to stress by activating your sympathetic nervous system as well as your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (aka your HPA axis). During a fight-or-flight response, your body releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can influence learning and help promote memory consolidation. (2) This is why some people might be more productive when they’re under stress than when they’re not under pressure. It’s worth noting, though, that too much stress can impair memory and cognitive processes.
2. It can help improve immunity.
Contrary to what you might think, a little stress and inflammation can actually be a good thing for your immune system. How so? When inflammation and harmful pathogens enter your body, they train your immune system to fight them off and mobilize the antioxidants from the foods you eat to reduce oxidation.
Research shows that short-term stress (lasting a few minutes or hours) can enhance innate/primary and adaptive/secondary immune responses. (3) Think back to a time when you accidentally cut your finger from chopping vegetables or fell on the sidewalk and scraped your leg. Your body responded quickly to stop the bleeding by creating a clot. Without experiencing some harm or risks, your body wouldn’t know how to respond to danger.
3. It can make you resilient.
In emotional terms, I associate stress with feelings of sadness and anger. Without them, you wouldn’t know what it truly means to be happy. In the same way, your body wouldn’t know what it truly means to be healthy without inflammation. This is the science behind resilience.
When you learn how to deal with difficult situations and times of failure and tragedy, you’re able to truly grow as a person and rise above challenges. (4) Moreover, how you perceive these struggles can is just important as the amount of stress you experience. (5) According to a 2013 Harvard study, when participants were told how stress can help them cope better, they improved performance, were less anxious and saw it as a positive challenge. (6)
4. It can help you be more productive.
Think back to a time when you had a big deadline for school or work. You might have been extremely stressed, but you were also focused and productive. The key is to look at these situations as an opportunity to grow and become a better person, rather than something negative.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, your performance increases with physiological and mental stress. (7) Studies have shown that easy tasks and activities that require less concentration don’t promote as much mental stamina and persistence to increase motivation. As a result, you might become complacent and not as motivated to succeed.
5. It can help you practice awareness.
Whether you’re working under a tight deadline at the office or pushing through a workout, stress teaches you how to be more aware of your breath and use it. Taking a few moments to breathe can give you the mental clarity you need to get through any challenge. Difficult situations can also help you be more aware of your abilities, so you seek inner strength. This is where the power of mantras can play a big role.
I like reciting mantras every day not just because they help me to develop a positive mindset but because they serve as good reminders during stressful times to tap into my inner strength. Check out these 10 mantras for better health every day.
Let’s Hear It!
How do you handle stress? What are some everyday practices that help you overcome stressful situations? How do you use stress to motivate you to succeed? Share your tips and advice with the NS community in the comments below, or post on social with #nutritionstripped.
1. Janczura, M., Bochenek, G., Nowobilski, R., Dropinski, J., Kotula-Horowitz, K., Laskowicz, B., Stanisz, A., Lelakowski, J., Domagala, T. (August 2015). The Relationship of Metabolic Syndrome with Stress, Coronary Heart Disease and Pulmonary Function — An Occupational Cohort-Based Study
2. Wirth, M.M. (October 2014) Hormones, Stress, and Cognition: The Effects of Glucocorticoids and Oxytocin on Memory
3. Dhabhar, F. S. (May 2014) Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful
4. Oken, B.S., Chamine, I., Wakeland, W. (April 2015) A system approach to stress, stressors and resilience in humans
5. Marston, A., Marston, S. (February 2018) To Handle Increased Stress, Build Your Resilience
6. Jamieson, J.P., Mendes, W. B., Nock, M., K. (February 2013) Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal
7. Gino, F. (April 2016) Are You Too Stressed to Be Productive? Or Not Stressed Enough?