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The Surprising Benefits of Stress

Are there really benefits of stress?

The good news! Stress is not all bad.

Stress is generally thought of in a negative context.

“Wow, this is a stressful time.”

“[This or that] really stresses me out.”

“I am always so stressed.”

Each of the statements above reflect the negative impact of stress. The short story, stress can be bad. But there are actually a number of benefits of stress that make it essential in everyday life.

The surprising benefits of stress

What are the benefits of stress?

In small doses stress can actually be beneficial. First, consider the fact that there is an entire part of our nervous system, known as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or the flight-or-flight response, that is specifically designed to respond to stress.

Which means our body is literally designed to respond to stress.

But we have to put that stress into context.

Stress as a warning signal

The SNS is designed to respond to short-term, acute stressors, like being chased by a lion or running out of a burning building. It causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase as well as hormonal changes that prepare you to run away or stay and fight.

So, we’re actually well-adjusted to manage short-term stress.

There are other “good” forms of stress too.

Improved physical performance

If managed properly, physical stress, like lifting weights in the gym or going for a run, stresses the body in a way that forces it to improve afterwards. Now the next time you do the same workout, it will seem easier because you have increased muscle mass or oxygen-carrying capacity as your body adapts to the training.

This concept is known as hormesis, which causes positive adaptation in response to low or intermittent doses of a stressor that would be dangerous or deadly at higher doses. Essentially, your body can handle a little more of the stress each time that it’s exposed.

So, now we know we can adapt to physical stress. The question remains, what about other types of stress?

Positive stress, also known as ‘eustress,’ describes an experience that provides a beneficial type of arousal like performing on stage, getting a promotion, riding on a rollercoaster, or buying a house. These situations may be challenging or exciting and put stress on the mind and body in a way that makes you feel stimulated, but not depleted.

Increased energy

Eustress releases endorphins and creates new neural pathways. It motivates us, sharpens our senses and helps us solve problems. The endorphin release can give us a boost too. You may feel increased energy, like an ‘adrenaline rush’ in response to short-term, low-level stress.

Better memory

Manageable stress also improves memory by stimulating stem cells and nerve growth in the brain. This is thought to be an adaptive mechanism. By memorizing the experience, you can store away the information to be used again later.

Increased alertness and performance

Studies show that stress that can be easily managed increases alertness and performance. By increasing arousal, the stress can help you focus to deliver an excellent presentation or do better on an exam.

Increased confidence

When faced with a challenging, but not impossible task, a little stress can actually help you succeed. The success from meeting one challenge will improve your confidence in the future. Endorphins are released and positive neural pathways are reinforced.

Better outlook

Believe it or not, stress is always going to be a part of life. We may not be able to get rid of it completely, but we can find healthy ways to manage it. Being able to approach stress with a positive mindset and the belief that we can succeed, can reduce the negative effects.

Understanding the curve

Being able to manage stress in a healthy way can actually allow you to perform better and improve your health. The Yerkes-Dodson stress-performance curve depicts the relationship between stress and performance. When stress is present, but well managed, you feel healthy, motivated and focused resulting in peak performance and health. Too much stress will cause burnout and fatigue while too little stress will leave you feeling unmotivated and bored.

Kelly Bruno MD Yerkes-Dodson Stress-Perforamnce Curve
With the right balance, stress can actually provide a beneficial source of motivation and focus.

Other healthy ways to manage stress

View stress as a challenge

Even if you can’t control all of the stress in your life, you can control your reaction to stressful situations. When you view stress as a challenge rather than a threat, you can channel the physiological effects to your benefit. As the blood flow increases and your heart rate picks up, you can channel that surge of energy into better focus, improved mental acuity, longer endurance and higher confidence.

Calm down the brain

When the body senses stress, the ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. As mentioned above, this is a natural response that is evolutionarily adaptive. But it’s good to remember that most of the stress we experience is not life-threatening. Once you learn how to recognize the state of ‘stress’, that feeling of tension and uneasiness, like you’re a wound-up Jack-In-The-Box, you can take steps to calm yourself down. This is as easy as taking a few deep breaths or practicing a few minutes of mindful awareness.

Complete the cycle of stress

When you experience a stressful situation, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate skyrockets, your blood pressure increases, and your muscles become tense. You’re ready to fight or flee. But, in most cases, you won’t actually do either. So now, even though the stressor has ended, the stress response is still present. You begin to live in this hyperaroused state day after day. By taking steps to complete the stress response, you can calm down the nervous system and return to a state of healthy vagal tone. Ways to complete the stress cycle include physical activity, making something, laughing, crying, physical intimacy, or deep breathing. Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski discuss this in detail in their book “Burnout: Unlocking The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle.”


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