This type of stress might actually be really good for your brain

If you think that all stress is damaging, it might be time to think again: new research has found that moderate levels of stress can improve our thinking processes. 

We’re all stressed these days. Whether it’s the cost of living crisis, travel chaos or a looming deadline, you can’t really escape stressful situations. And while dealing with them at the time might feel like a headache (and all that adrenaline can feel ageing), a new study has actually found that a specific type of stress might in fact be good for us.

Researchers from the University of Georgia have found that low to moderate levels of stress – like the kind you go through at work – can boost brain function. Published in Psychiatry Research, scientists found that certain kinds of stress can help people to become more mentally resilient and better able to cope with future stressful encounters.

Now, that might all sound like common sense; after all, didn’t Kelly Clarkson sing: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? But it’s not always easy to see the long-term benefits when you’re going through the wringer, and this study highlights the delicate balance between enough stress and too much stress. 

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“If you’re in an environment where you have some level of stress, you may develop coping mechanisms that will allow you to become a more efficient and effective worker and organise yourself in a way that will help you perform,” said Assaf Oshri, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

We’re talking about common stressful scenarios here, rather than life-defining moments. Prepping for an exam, gearing up for a presentation at work or working towards your first 5k race are all going to push you towards personal growth. Having a stressful encounter with work that leaves you looking for a new job might prompt you to rethink your career or look for a better fit. Being rejected from a date might have you reassessing exactly what kind of person you want to be with.

Oshri likens it to getting a callus on your hands after a brutal strength training session. That activity triggers your body to adapt and build thicker skin where it needs to. If you keep the pressure right, your hands will become used to lifting heavy; lift too much too soon, and the skin might tear. 

Chronic stress, however, is detrimental to every aspect of health and wellbeing

Chronic stress – for example the kind you might have experienced during Covid, the cost of living crisis or from living in an abusive situation – has absolutely no benefits. If you have no escape from stress, then just about everything is negatively impacted, from your immune system to your sleep and concentration. As Oshri says: “At a certain point, stress becomes toxic. Not all stress is good stress.”

As with everything, the dose makes the poison. And the point of this study is to show that those annoying, temporarily stressful stints you go through at work, at the gym or in your personal life can make the future easier to deal with.

The study looked at the data of 1,200 young people who self-reported their own perceived stress levels using a questionnaire. They were asked how often they’d been upset because of something unexpected in the past month, and how often they found they were unable to cope with all things they had to do.

Participants then had their abilities assessed using tests that measured how well they were able to suppress automatic responses to images, the ability to switch between tasks and their working memory and processing speed. Researchers found that low to moderate stress levels were psychologically beneficial, acting as a kind of vaccine against developing symptoms of poor mental health.

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