The Surprising Benefits of Stress (Yes, it's not all bad!)
This morning I slept right through my three alarm clocks, hit every red light on my way to work, got stuck behind an extremely slow driver, and then realized I was driving around on empty and had to stop to get gas. Oh, and I also left my notes for a meeting at home. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning.
Of course, we all experience stress from time to time—some more often than others. In fact, according to the The American Psychological Association, the number of people who experience chronic stress has increased to 24% in 2016, versus 18% in 2014. And when you’re in a high pressure profession such as law, those cortisol levels can skyrocket.
It’s no secret why stress is bad for you: Prolonged stress can lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even certain cancers. However, that’s not all. Stress can also lead to weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, hair loss, constant headaches, interrupted sleep, blurred vision, sexual dysfunction, adult acne, fatigue, and a whole host of other issues.
However, it’s not all bad news! Here are some ways that stress can actually be good for you:
Stress Motivates You.
Occasional stress can actually be a good thing to get your adrenaline pumping and to release the feel good hormone, oxytocin. This, in turn, make people seek out the support or social interaction they need to get through whatever is actually causing the stress.
By viewing stress as a positive force to motivate you, you can possibly reduce or even avoid its negative biological results. Oxytocin fine tunes the brain’s social instincts, which causes people to reach out to friends or family during difficult times. Simply the act of reaching out to others for help can protect your heart.
Stress Can Boost Memory and Learning.
Scientists at UC Berkley found that stress can temporarily improve memory. Here’s how: The hippocampus is the section of the brain that handles stress response and regulates learning and memory. The study on rats discovered that when exposed to short-term, moderate stress, stem cell growth was stimulated and new cells grew. This, in turn, led to a boost in the rats’ mental performance. So if you’re stuck in traffic on your way to an appointment where you’ll have to retain a lot of information, that might not be the worst thing.
Stress Makes Your Resilient.
How individuals view and handle stress itself can determine how it will affect the physiological response in the body. Experts believe that people who are more resilient and confident can manage stress more effectively than others who might have more vulnerability to stressful situations (such as military veterans suffering from PTSD after active duty.) The takeaway here is that, by working on increasing one’s self-confidence and positive self-talk, the effects of stress can be diminished. This is where mindfulness and meditation can take a leading role in a person’s wellness journey. As Daniela Kaufer, associate professor at UC Berkeley who studies the biology of stress, recently said, “If you tend to have a positive attitude—a self-confident sense that you can get through a rough period—you’re more likely to have a healthy response than if you perceive stress as catastrophic.”
Stress-like Symptoms Can Signal Underlying Health Issues.
If you’re dealing with chronic stress, talk to your healthcare practitioner to develop stress management techniques and possibly look for other medical issues. Often times seeking help for stress can actually lead to more health-related findings, such as blocked arteries or digestive disorders. For example, patients may wind up in a gastroenterologist’s office after being treated for an alleged panic attack, only to learn they have a hiatal hernia or acid reflux. Symptoms of heavy chest, difficulty swallowing, and regurgitation of food can be considered stress-related, but they can also be evidence of other issues or illnesses. In other words, listen to your body! Don’t discount any unusual physical ailments just because you believe they are stress-related; sometimes there may be more to the story and stress can actually clue you in to that.
Julie Weidenfeld is a fitness expert and author of many articles on the subject for publications such as USA Today and The Huffington Post. Check out her blog at www.travelfitinc.com.