Marcus Clarke, BSc, MSc, owns and operates psysci.co, a blog that examines the latest research as well as discussion of topical stories, concerning the areas of psycology and science that contribute to our understanding of health and well-being.
psysci.co was launched in 2014, while Marcus was completing his master´s degree in health psycology. The blog aims to examine the latest research and interpret how findings can benefit our everyday lives.
Marcus is my guest blogger today, giving us a new awareness and perspective on the modern health thief called stress. What a timely piece in August, a lazy beach season, so that when we get back to work, we can face routine in a more positive way! Thank you Marcus!
How Stress Can Actually Be Good for You
You’re sitting in the computer lab at 4am, before the final research paper is due. Besides the final paper, you also have 3 essays, one exam to study for and you haven’t even started thinking about buying Christmas presents. Your body aches, your brain is on overdrive and the stress response is in full effect.
And on top of all of that adrenaline pulsing through your veins, you come across article after article that is recommending you to relax and calm down right now! Because stress can be lethal, causing the majority of cardiovascular disease and is the culprit behind almost every illness in the book.
But despite what medical professionals, psychologists and news articles are telling us…
Can Stress Actually be Good for You?
Kelly McGonigal, is a health psychologist who conducted a TedTalk on the topic of the positive benefits of stress and how to make stress your friend. The TedTalk video has received almost 4 million views and is delivering a resounding message that stress can actually be good for you. With the support of scientific studies, McGonigal suggests that it’s the very belief of the harmful effects of stress itself that causes a lot of the cases of chronic stress and disease. She also suggests that the stress response is not dangerous, but is conditioning our bodies and mind to take appropriate action.
What do the studies say?
Studies have shown that stress can actually provide physical and mental benefits that allow you to thrive and become more resilient.
Studies show that the sheer belief that stress is harmful to your health will increase your chance of dying from stress-related disease. In McGonigal’s talk, she discusses one study in which 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they experience within a year, they were then asked if they believed stress was harmful to their health.
8 years later, death records showed that those that believed that stress was harmful had a 43% death rate. The subjects that believed stress was not harmful had a significantly lower rate.
Blood vessels constrict during stress and can cause a whole range of cardiovascular diseases. The subjects from the same study who believed stress to be helpful rather than a hindrance had relaxed blood vessels, even while stressed.
A 2012 Stanford study showed that when lab rats were exposed to mild stress, there was a “massive mobilization” of immune cells in their bloodstream, showing how stress has a positive impact on the immune system.
So what does this tell us?
Stress can be seen as a useful biological response as opposed to an enemy. It also tells us that stress has benefits that we may be overlooking.
One benefit of stress that is unknown to most of the world is oxytocin, or “the cuddle hormone”. Oxytocin, surprisingly, is a stress hormone, produced by the pituitary gland in order to create empathy and compassion. Its purpose is to motivate connection with other people, whether it is to reach out for support or to support someone else. Another interesting attribute of oxytocin is it regenerates cells in the heart that have been damaged from stress, so it’s also helping your body to heal and repair from stress.
In the same way oxytocin motivates us to connect, stress motivates us to take action. Endocrinologist, Hans Selye categorizes good stress as Eustress, stress that can motivate you to succeed. Eustress can put the subject in a state of flow and complete absorption into an activity that is beneficial in attaining creative, workplace or other personal goals.
Richard Shelton MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham says that the stress response benefits the brain by enhancing focus. Low-level stress stimulates the production of neurotrophins and strengthens connections between neurons in the brain. Short term psychological stress can have comparable benefits to that of short bursts of physical exercise, which affect the brain in the same positive way.
Stress is a big part of many people’s lives; it shows up at the least opportune times and can wreak havoc on lifestyle and health. But what’s important to remember is that stress is as natural as any other biological process within the human body. It’s easy to see stress as a big inconvenience or even as a danger, but it’s possible and even beneficial to view short term stress as helpful and maybe even, dare I say, good for you.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that like most things in life, too much is bad for you. When stress becomes unmanageable and lasts for long periods of time (days or weeks) then it might be time to talk to someone about it.