Stress Out Right Now: It’s Good For You

Stress is a powerful emotion

Stress it that nagging, sinking that comes from demanding situations. It’s a powerful emotion that can keep us up late at night or force us into making rushed decisions. Yet for all the challenges that come with stress – and there are many – it’s actually good for us in moderation. We don’t notice it in the moment, but stress is what motivates us and makes us better. With just the right amount, we learn better and become tougher.

While a life full of chronic stress is dangerous for both the body and the mind, the opposite is also true. A worry-free life devoid of stress can also be harmful. Think about that the next time a boss drops a difficult assignment with an impossible deadline on your lap. In a way, the boss could be doing you a favor.

What Stress Does to You 

So what makes acute stress so beneficial, despite how unpleasant it may feel during crunch time?

For starters, it makes us motivated. Researchers have found that moments of stress cause our brains to create high levels of dopamine. This neurotransmitter has long been linked to pleasure and reward. Originally, researchers believed that dopamine was released when eating a favorite junk food, playing the lottery or during anything else a person found satisfying. However, a 2013 study found a much deeper reason why dopamine exists.

When dopamine kicks in, the brain is telling the body that something big is about to happen, according to the research. This impending “thing” could be either good or bad, so regardless of what it is the body is prepared to react. Essentially, dopamine regulates our motivation to do things and to react to situations. It’s what makes us want to succeed in whatever it is we’re doing.

The Body and the Mind

When we experience stress moderate amounts of stress, we become smarter. Researchers subjected lab rats to different levels of stress and then tested out their memory afterward. They found that there was a sweet spot when it comes to learning under stress. Too much and too little has a negative effect on learning, while there’s an optimal amount that improves brain function.

Muscles need to be pushed and tested in order to grow stronger. Moderate amounts of stress are similar to workouts. It’s not always pleasant in the moment, but the long-term results are beneficial.

It’s not just brains that benefit, either. While chronic stress weakens the immune system, acute stress (like the kind you when a deadline is approaching or something unexpected pops up at home) makes us healthier. In some circumstances, researchers found that this type of stress strengthens our immune system by warning our body of incoming challenges.

A Life Without Stress

In science fiction, futuristic utopias are often depicted as requiring no day jobs while machines cater to our every wish and whim. In the real world, a lot of us like to imagine that our retirements will fall somewhere along those lines. Such an idyllic-sounding life sounds perfect to many of us, yet there are proven downsides to not experiencing stress.

This is a fairly new development, as it’s long been believed that all stress was bad and no stress was good. This simple black and white view comes from the unlikely source of cigarette companies. These companies funded most stress-related research from the second half of the 20th century, which led to some presumably skewed findings.

The cigarette companies hoped to harness the studies to strengthen the marketing of their products as stress relievers. As the heart and lung problems associated with smoking became known, tobacco companies hoped to highlight that a life of stress is just as damaging to health.

Recent research has revealed different findings when it comes to stress.

In a study that looked at people with chronic back pain, researchers discovered that people who experienced very little stress in their lives required more medical services and functioned worse than people who normally dealt with stress in their lives.

Other studies have found that low-to-no stress people were less able to handle pain than others. Part of the reason they had such a weakness to pain was purely mental, as they expected the pain in the experiments to be far worse than it actually was. They simply couldn’t cope with the idea of distress.

What this research shows is that we all need a little stress. Those who have experienced very little stress in their lives are less resilient when a challenge does arrive.

Finding a Balance

Like just about everything else, stress is best in moderation. Too much can have debilitating effects, ranging as minor as reducing sleeping quality to as serious as post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why it’s important to harness stress in the short-term while finding ways to alleviate it so there are no lasting effects.

Everyone has a different way of managing stress. This might involve picking up some hobbies or finding a better work-life balance. Whatever it is that gives you comfort, take advantage of it so you only have to deal with stress when it’s beneficial.

Through the right kind of stress, we become better. All of us are iron-forged by the trials of fire. Just the right amount of flame can make something strong and beautiful. Too many or two few outside elements creates something flawed and less effective. So embrace stress. It’ll make you stronger.

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