Studies into the benefits of stress indicate that feelings of stress and anxiety may sometimes hold value. For years, medical professionals and researchers have highlighted the dangers of stress, telling us high levels of anxiety and cortisol can cause everything from headaches, muscle tension and heart problems to depression and skin conditions.
Stress has even earned the nickname, The silent killer. However, despite the obvious disadvantages of being constantly stressed, there are still some benefits of stress that should be discussed.
It’s worth noting that stress is a natural physiological and psychological response in the human body. As such, it often plays an important role in our lives, and not always for the worse.
Staying healthy and ensuring ongoing wellness may not require us to avoid stress entirely, but simply change our attitudes towards it.
Altering the way we perceive, respond, and leverage stress in our lives could mean we can access more of the benefits of stress, while side-stepping some of the risks.
Good Stress and Bad Stress: The Key Differences
Stress is a common experience in our lives. According to statistics in the US, approximately 77% of us regularly experience the physical symptoms of stress, while 73% experience psychological side effects.
With so many studies outlining the potential dangers of stress, it’s easy to see why most people assume any kind of stress is bad. However, the reality is just as there are different kinds of cholesterol (both good and bad) and different forms of carbohydrates (both good and bad), there are various types of stress as well.
Stress is often dangerous when it’s a chronic problem. When you’re constantly overwhelmed by high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), you’re more likely to suffer cognitive and physical side effects. One study from Harvard showed people with high cortisol struggled with their memory.
Chronically high cortisol can also contribute to other health problems, from obesity and hypertension to type 2 diabetes.
However, short-term, acute periods of stress (not chronic stress) can actually often be beneficial.
According to a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, stress is a powerful motivator, and a versatile tool in our lives. For instance, oxytocin is a type of stress hormone, but it’s also linked to our feelings of empathy, and the relationships we build with other people.
Even anxiety has its benefits. Anxiety is a kind of internal warning system, handed down over the generations through evolution. Anxiety alerts us to external and internal threats, so we can avoid, or respond to them correctly. Anxiety only becomes unhealthy when it reaches chronic levels, causing our “alarm” system to go off without a valid reason.
The Benefits of Stress
The key to unlocking the benefits of stress, is learning how to recognize different forms of stress, and respond to the stressful experience correctly. When we embrace stress as a friend, motivational tool, and source of internal power, it becomes less of a threat.
While the advantages of stress are still being researched, some of the most significant benefits of stress that we’ve already discovered include:
1. Greater Awareness and Mindfulness
Stress and anxiety are natural responses created by the body to help protect you against threats. A little bit of anxiety can often be a good thing if it forces you to think twice about doing something dangerous. For instance, you’re likely to feel some nerves before you try skydiving for the first time, or jump into an icy pool. This is because you’ve evolved to associate these experiences with danger.
One of the major benefits of stress is its ability to act as a warning or alarm system when you’re exposing yourself to risky situations. Stress can help us to identify when we’re dealing with circumstances we need to change. For example, if you’re constantly feeling stress as a result of a relationship, you may come to the realization that it’s a toxic relationship, and decide it’s time to break cut ties.
If your workplace causes you undue stress, your cognitive, physical, and emotional responses might be telling you it’s time to switch paths. Listening to stress and learning how to understand the messages it’s sending you can improve your self-awareness. It’s a good way to practice being more mindful, and start taking control of your life.
2. Improved Productivity, Cognitive Function and Performance
Stress has a physical impact on the body. When you feel stressed, your heart rate increases, your adrenaline spikes, and you become more focused on the issue causing the stress. While the experience might not be pleasant, stress can potentially improve your physical and mental performance.
Moderate stress actively enhances the connections between the neurons in your brain, improving attention span and memory, so stress can help you be more productive. Think about how you feel when you suddenly remember you have a task to complete before an impending deadline. You might feel panicked and overwhelmed, but you’re more likely to focus and get the job done.
Anxiety has a similar result. It works similarly to caffeine, adding adrenaline to the body, increasing respiration and blood flow, to help boost alertness. Just as high levels of caffeine can be dangerous over time, high levels of stress become problematic with chronic exposure. However, for brief intervals, stress can be just what you need to get a job done.
3. Enhanced Immunity
While large amounts of stress can make it more difficult to combat illness and infection, small doses of stress could be a powerful way to enhance your immune system. Since the dawn of time, living creatures have been exposed to stress on a consistent basis. This stress has led to the development of ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, which prepare us for dealing with threats.
The fight-or-flight response you feel when presented with large amounts of anxiety or stress also stimulates the production of chemicals in your body called interleukins. According to studies, these chemical reactions can accelerate wound healing, strengthen your immune system, and make you more resilient in the moment.
Essentially, the role of stress as a ‘protection’ system for the body goes a lot further than simply alerting us when we’re in danger. Your stress response often gives you the strength you need to battle illness and infection.
4. Powerful Motivation and Resilience
One of the most significant benefits of stress is that it can motivate you to achieve your goals and accomplish more. The stress you feel before you take an important test at school, deliver a presentation to your boss, or compete in a sporting event encourages you to take action to improve your performance, and improve your chances of success.
If you’re particularly nervous about an upcoming event, you’re more likely to take additional measures to prepare yourself, such as studying or training harder. In other words, stress “keeps you on your toes”. Combined with the impact stress can have on your focus and cognition, the motivational elements of the emotion are excellent for helping us achieve our goals.
What’s more, as we continue to experience and overcome stress, we also develop resilience. Going through stressful situations builds resilience and inner strength. We learn which challenges we can reasonably tackle, and become less concerned about them in the future. Stress can help us to develop confidence and self-esteem, as we learn more about what we can do, and continue to push our limits.
5. Social and Relationship Support
As mentioned earlier, stress comes in many different forms. It’s not just the butterflies you feel in the pit of your stomach when you’re starting a new job, or the headache you get when thinking about a complex task at school. Oxytocin is a hormone enhanced by stress.
Oxytocin is released when we hug someone, or feel close to another person. The neuro-hormone helps to enhance your brain’s social instincts, and place you in a position where you can start deepening your connection to other human beings. This hormone is also responsible for improving your emotional intelligence and your empathy levels.
The oxytocin released into your system as a result of stress can help push you to take important steps in your relationship, such as having important conversations or telling someone how you feel about them. It can also push you to seek out social connections and support when you’re feeling overwhelmed, improving the relationships you develop with friends and family over time.
Other Potential Benefits of Stress
Outside of the 5 key benefits of stress mentioned above, researchers are beginning to uncover additional advantages of stress as well. Once again, it’s worth remembering the benefits connected to stress are generally only present when your exposure is moderate. However, the positive outcomes can include:
- Enhanced child development: One study conducted by Johns Hopkins university found women who experience mild stress during pregnancy had children with more advanced development skills by the age of 2. While significant stress during pregnancy is dangerous, small amounts could be beneficial to an unborn child.
- Better problem solving skills: The alertness and focus you feel when you’re stressed can help you to think more creatively about problems. Many leaders and business owners who experience periods of stress say it helps them to address issues more innovatively. If you experience anxiety, this can also push you to think about the potential outcomes of situations and consider ways of fixing problems before they happen.
- Enhanced health: Not only can stress improve your immune system response, but it can help your health in other ways too. Oxytocin helps to improve your cardiovascular system’s performance and reduce inflammation. When you reach out to others because of stress or anxiety, you’re actively preserving your health. Chronic stress may lead to health problems, but sometimes, stress is good for us.
Understanding the Benefits of Stress
Stress in large doses is still a very dangerous thing, so it’s important to understand that too much stress occurring too regularly isn’t beneficial. Chronic stress can cause significant health problems, both mental and physical. However, this doesn’t mean stress is something we should be avoiding entirely. The key is learning how to recognize and embrace positive or useful stress responses.
When people can start to see the difference between positive stress (eustress), and negative stress, they can start using the emotion to their advantage. You can define when your stress levels are telling you something important about your life, or pushing you to step outside of your comfort zone. You’ll also be able to see the benefits of stress as a motivator and source of strength.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress on a consistent basis, you should always consider seeking out help to address the issue. However, if you’re experiencing mild stress from time to time, it may be a good idea to stop and think about how this emotion could be transforming you into a stronger person. CircleDNA is an at-home DNA test that can inform you of your genetic risk of chronic stress, among other useful DNA insights. When you take a CircleDNA test, you’ll receive over 500 reports about yourself, including your genetic strengths and weaknesses.
- Stress effects on the body (American Psychological Association) https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
- What is Stress? (The American Institute of Stress) https://www.stress.org/daily-life
- Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures (Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, Sarah C. Conner, Jayandra J. Himali, Pauline Maillard, Charles S. DeCarli, Alexa S. Beiser, Ramachandran S. Vasan, Sudha Seshadri) https://n.neurology.org/content/91/21/e1961
- How to make stress your friend (Kelly McGonigal) https://school.karpaty.info/data/docs/TED_pdf/TED_Kelly%20McGonigal_How%20to%20make%20stress%20your%20friend%20Script.pdf
- The Benefits of Anxiety and Nervousness (Katharina Star, PhD ) https://www.verywellmind.com/benefits-of-anxiety-2584134#:~:text=Even%20though%20it%20may%20seem,to%20react%20faster%20to%20emergencies.
- Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry (Suzanne C. Segerstrom & Gregory E. Miller) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/
- The two faces of oxytocin (Tori DeAngelis) https://www.apa.org/monitor/feb08/oxytocin#:~:text=But%20more%20recent%20research%20has,social%20isolation%20and%20unhappy%20relationships.
- Mild Maternal Stress May Actually Help Children Mature (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2006/dipietro-stress