Stress is almost always the bad guy in everyone’s story, but— surprise! Small or moderate amounts of it can make someone feel stronger, smarter, and happier.
Stress isn’t all bad. Actually, a little stress can be really good for you. What psychologists call “eustress” is the kind of stress that you feel when you’re enthusiastic about, say, a first date, or when you’re watching a horror movie, or when you’re having a difficult task at your workplace. Keep reading and find the 10 surprising ways in which stress can be good for you (yes, really!).
Stress may make your brain grow
I’m sure you remember the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” This can also be applied to stress, as short amounts of stress can truly help the brain to improve. In a 2013 eLife study, researchers positioned rats in a short-term stressful situation (they had been immobilized in their cage for a few hours) and the experience doubled the growth of new brain cells.
“When we experience stress, we have an increase in arousal, which signals to us that something important is happening,” explains Bethany Teachman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “If we appraise the situation as challenging but manageable, then the arousal helps us focus and direct effort toward addressing the challenge. Think about how difficult it is to give a good presentation or performance if you feel no arousal at all.”
Stress may improve your memory
Remembering the specifics of a stressful situation is crucial to survival. Animals that are better at remembering dangerous situations can prevent them in the long term. “If an animal encounters a predator and manages to escape, it’s important to remember where and when that encounter happened,” says neuroscientist Daniela Kaufer, PhD, a professor in the department of integrative biology and acting associate dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, CA. “It makes sense then, that exposure to moderate stress can enhance your memory of the event. Likewise, if you’re walking down an alley and somebody threatens you, it’s important to remember exactly where you were in order to avoid that alley in the future.”
The brain is always reacting to stress. “Biologically, the exposure to moderate stress causes an increase in the generation of specialized cells that participate in memorizing the stressful event,” says Kaufer.
Stress may give you energy
Short-term stress can bump up your energy a bit or two, particularly if it’s the good thing. “Positive stress, known as ‘eustress,’ is an experience that offers a beneficial form of arousal,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression and an adjunct professor at Adelphi University. “Situations that challenge us, or are exciting and stimulating, place stress on our mind and body—but the experience doesn’t necessarily cause discomfort. Instead, eustress motivates us, sharpens our senses, and helps us problem solve successfully.”
Good stress effectively develops new neural pathways and activates healthful endorphins. We ‘re talking about challenges such as speaking, obtaining a promotion at work, performing on stage, having a baby, or moving to a new household. Think of it as a type of physical exercise— it puts stress on your body, but it leaves you feeling pumped up rather than tired.
Stress may keep you from getting sick
It’s true that long-term, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to illness, but short-term “good” stress can actually provide some protection against getting sick. “Eustress increases your immune functioning,” Dr. Serani says. Research, including a review of studies published in 2013 in Psychoneuroendocrinology, suggests that manageable levels of stress may promote resilience and resistance to diseases.
Stress may make your kids savvier
Great news for pregnant women who are beginning to experience normal feelings of anxiety and stress common to the requirements of modern life: short-term stress situations do not have a negative impact on the development of the fetus, according to a study published in 2017 in Stress: the International Journal on Stress Biology.
Of course, no one’s implying that pregnant women should seek stress, but if you feel a little anxious, it’s okay. Other research has also shown that those who experience short stress in childhood— like a short separation from their mother — actually have less anxiety and better brain function as adults. Longer childhood and childhood stress is still associated with negative outcomes, however.
Stress helps you get in the zone
The energy spike that short-term stress provides you can also help you stay focused. Psychologists call this feeling “flow,” and good stress can help you to achieve that as well. A stressor like running a marathon, taking an exam, starting a new job, giving a presentation, meeting a new friend, taking on a new hobby, getting married, or becoming a new parent will kick-start neurobiology in a way that will get you into the zone,” Dr. Serani says. That’s why some people function best under pressure— short-term stress makes the brain zero in on the one task it needs to do and shuts everything else out.
Stress can give you confidence
When you’re faced with a challenge that isn’t out of the realm of possibility for you to fulfill, you ‘re experiencing stress that will actually help you succeed. “What research tells us about eustress is that it accesses our neuroendocrine system differently than distress, which is stress that’s too overwhelming,” Dr. Serani says. “Eustress stimulates more health-enhancing biochemistry like endorphins than distress does.”
For example, if you feel that your heart is beginning to race before a presentation at work, think of it as your body rises to the challenge, rather than your body freaking out. Trying to make that tiny mental switch can help you channel good stress, so it’s more likely to help your efficiency than to damage it.
Stress makes you better adjusted
Having to deal with a certain amount of stress is a normal part of the process, and those who can look at it in a positive manner may have more benefits and fewer negative impacts. “The impact of stress depends a lot on the meaning we assign to the situation, our perception of how difficult managing the situation will be, and how adequate our personal resources are to meet the demands,” says Dr. Teachman. “If we believe that the stressor presents an insurmountable threat, we are likely to experience the negative consequences of stress because we think the situation has overwhelmed our coping resources. If, instead, we view the situation as a difficult challenge but one that we are capable of managing, then we are motivated to take steps to meet the challenge because we believe we have that capability.”
The best approach is not to avoid stress, but to find a healthy way of managing it when it happens. To do this, consider your body’s stress reaction to be helpful, not painful. Think of it as the energy you can use to reduce stress in your life. Imagine, for instance, “the range of responses to an upcoming big exam,” says Dr. Teachman. “One student thinks there is no way he can do well on the exam and feels defeated by the stress and doesn’t even bother studying. Another student facing the same exam expects it will be very difficult but thinks that she can do well if she studies hard. The same stressor can lead to very different responses. It’s helpful to remember that there’s often more than one way to view a situation and that we have handled stress in the past.”
Stress may help you handle more stress
It sounds stupid, but stress management helps you manage more stress. Psychologists call this stress inoculation. “It can be helpful to learn which coping responses work well for you in different situations so you build a strong repertoire of strategies to manage different types of challenges,” says Dr. Teachman. “Having a successful experience of managing a stressful situation well builds your self-efficacy, which is the belief that you have the resources and ability to achieve your goals. When we feel we can be effective, it builds our motivation to take on bigger challenges.”
Even if things don’t turn out well, you can learn from the mistakes. What did and didn’t work, and how could you react differently in the future? “If we view stressful situations as an opportunity to learn, rather than a threat of failure,” adds Dr. Teachman, “we are better positioned to effectively manage challenges.”
You’re more likely to see your life as meaningful
Going through difficult situations can help you appreciate your life. That could be because those who are more involved in activities and relationships are more involved in life. So if you recreate how you see stress in this way, you can promote its positive effects.
“When you think about stress, remember that the word itself doesn’t always mean something bad,” Dr. Serani says. “Moderate amounts of eustress can help you cope with life in meaningful ways.”