Why Stress Can Be Good for You
Stress has become a way of life in our 24-7 world -- and it might seem like you’ll never get to relax again. Fortunately, there’s some good news: “Contrary to the widespread notion that stress is necessarily bad, short-term stressors enhance immune function and help the immune system respond more rapidly and effectively,” says Firdaus Dhabhar, a physician and the director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress and Health.
When you’re stressed, your body produces a hormone called cortisol, which triggers a fight-or-flight response by revving up your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. When the stress lessens, your system returns to normal. Things get risky when stress becomes chronic -- the kind of anxiety that never seems to go away. This can trigger inflammation and increase your risk of heart disease, obesity and depression.
Still, small doses of stress can actually improve your health. Check out these three surprising ways that small doses of stress can be good for you.
Surprise Benefit No. 1: Clearer thinking
The burst of nerves that you feel before you give a toast at a wedding or a presentation at the office has a silver lining: It could actually improve your memory.
In one study, researchers trained rats to complete a maze and then made half of them swim (to stress them out). When the rats were made to complete the maze again, “The animals that were forced to swim performed significantly better in the second maze test, suggesting that their working memory had improved,” says study author Eunice Y. Yuen, an assistant research professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “Cortisol enhances the transmission of certain chemicals in the prefrontal cortex, a key area in the brain that controls memory and executive function.”
Surprise Benefit No. 2: A stronger immune system
Feeling frazzled might bolster your immune system so that you’ll be primed to combat a cold or recover after an accident. To demonstrate exactly what happens to the immune system during a short period of stress, Dhabhar followed 57 patients undergoing knee surgery. “The body’s ‘soldiers’ (immune cells) leave their barracks and enter the blood stream. This mobilization of the body’s ‘army’ results in an increase in immune-cell numbers in the blood, sending the immune cells to potential ‘battle stations’ (skin and lymph nodes),” he explains. “Patients who experienced this immune cell redistribution induced by the acute, positive stress of the surgery showed enhanced recovery.”
In another study, Dhabhar and his colleagues subjected mice to stress for two and a half hours and discovered that the rodents activated more leukocytes -- white blood cells that help the body fight infection and disease -- than mice that were not stressed. In fact, just one session of acute stress increased certain types of leukocytes by 200 to 300 percent.
Surprise Benefit No. 3: Resilience
Experiencing (and conquering) stressful situations may give you the ability to thrive when challenges -- from pesky traffic jams to company-wide layoffs -- pop up. That’s what Salvatore R. Maddi, a psychology and social behavior professor at the University of California, Irvine, discovered through decades of research.
“Hardiness is the pattern of attitudes and skills that helps you transform stresses from potential disasters into growth opportunities,” he explains. In a landmark study in the 1970s and 1980s, Maddi followed executives who faced losing their jobs at a telephone company. “Those who addressed stress openly were the ones who not only survived, but also thrived. The managers who showed a pattern of denying and avoiding anxiety fell apart into mental and physical disorders,” says Maddi.
How to Maintain a Healthy Stress Level
So how can you determine whether the pressure you feel is boosting your health or undermining it? According to the American Psychological Association, red flags include frequent headaches, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, irritability, anxiety, and neck or back pain. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing the above, and try these four strategies to keep stress in check all season long:
Soothe yourself with scents.
Buy lavender-scented candles, bath bubbles and shampoo. One study in the International Journal of Aromatherapy found that inhaling the scent of lavender for 10 minutes triggered an increase in blood flow and a decrease in systolic blood pressure -- which translates to feelings of calmness and relaxation.
“Anticipate the stresses of the holidays before they actually happen, and make a plan for solving the problems,” says Maddi. If last-minute gifts always drive you nuts, get an early jump on online shopping. If cooking dinner is too much after long days at work, stock your freezer with casseroles.
Spend time with your dog or cat.
In one study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, people who had pets had lower heart rates and blood pressure levels. They also responded less to stress than those who didn’t have pets and recovered more quickly from stressful incidents when their fluffy friend was present.
Take a time-out.
Take just five minutes a day to practice deep breathing or meditation. In one study from the University of California, Irvine, people who practiced meditation for 30 years showed a 40 to 50 percent lower response rate to stress than those who never tried it.
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