A number of recent studies have proved true the expression, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Research has shown that stress—what we’ve previously considered the enemy of the modern worker—may actually be beneficial. In fact, stress may make you a better thinker, worker, and humanitarian.
Think of a guitar. The strings are pulled tight, even at rest. When you go to play that guitar, you’re putting added stress on that string. If you pluck the string too hard with too much stress, the sound will go awry. But if you pluck it with just enough stress, the guitar makes a lovely sound. Under just the right amount of stress, you get beautiful music.
Stress is the same way. If we are met with a moderate amount of stress, we can actually use that energy to make music in our own lives.
Purpose of stress
We all feel stress at some point. It can be everyday stresses like doing a presentation in front of your boss or driving in holiday traffic. Or it can be long-term stresses like losing your job or dealing with a chronic illness.
Stress is not innately harmful. In fact, it exists as a biological means of protection. The adrenaline “fight or flight” response you experience during a stressful situation is your body’s means of guarding itself. In our early years, adrenaline would allow you to run away from a bear in the woods or to fight a wooly mammoth for food.
Today’s workers, though, are finding themselves not in short-term “fight or flight” but instead drowning in high amounts of long-term stress. Stress can be severely problematic when it begins affecting overall wellbeing. Chronic stress is one of the six leading causes of death, and it’s directly correlated to anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, imbalanced hormones, and more.
But even the worst kinds of stresses can do no harm… if you perceive them to be useful. A 2012 study found that thinking that stress is bad for you actually makes stress bad for you. Those participants who believed their stress was negatively impacting their health had associated poor health, psychological concerns, and even risk of premature death. Those participants who believed their stress was positive did not show these same risks, despite their level of stress.
So how can you leverage stress as a positive factor in your life?
1. Boosts brain power
Low to moderate levels of stress can temporarily boost memory and concentration. Stress produces neurotrophins, which are the chemicals that strengthen the connections between the neurons in the brain. This influx of chemicals helps your brain function at peak performance.
A 2013 University of California study found that rats with moderate levels of stress actually had higher levels of learning, memory, and brain function when performing a series of tasks over non-stressed rats. A similar study of rats in 2009 showed that those rats in a stressful situation had an increase in glutamine, which is a hormone known for improving memory.
In 2010, students at New Mexico State University were asked to notice subtle differences between two pictures. Those students who were first put through a stressful situation and had high levels of cortisol did better on this memory test than those who weren’t subjected to stress.
Stress helps your brain. It allows you to better respond to immediate situations logically and productively.
You can even call upon this brainpower by moderately stressing your body with exercise. If you’re feeling your concentration or memory is foggy, going for a run or taking a cold shower will stress your body enough to help build stronger connections between the neurons in your brain.
2. Improves performance
In a similar fashion, stress has been shown to help improve performance and better meet a challenge. A 2013 University of California Berkeley study found that stress made rats’ brains more alert. This alertness creates a stronger motivation and an ability to push through any perceived or realistic roadblocks towards accomplishment.
Moreover, the University of Maine found that stressed subjects did better on tests where they had to use their gut instincts. This suggests that stress puts us in-tune with our instincts, helping us to enter a “flow” of productivity and thought.
Consider exam time. Exam stress can help students cram and study for a test. Often, this allows them to do well on the exam because the stress motivated them to perform better. (Nevertheless, too much stress will cause the student to break down and watch 18 hours of Netflix instead. There has to be a balance.)
3. Increases immunity
Stress naturally puts your body in a protective state to help prepare you for any injury that might occur from the stressor. Because of this, stress actually produces interleukins, which are chemicals that help regulate the immune system. This can be useful for short-term bursts of protection.
For example, one study found that people with low levels of stress before surgery had faster recovery times than those with high or low levels of stress. A 2012 Stanford study found that stress caused a boost in a number of immune cells in the bloodstream. Another study found that acute stress released so many immune defense cells that it was considered as potent as a vaccine. Researchers at the University of California SF found that low levels of daily stress can enhance “psychobiological resilience.”
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that stress depresses the immune system in the long-term. If your body is always in fight-or-flight response, your other essential organ processes shut down and can’t perform appropriately. That’s when disease steps in. In the short-term though, stress can protect you from infection and serious injury.
4. Enhances resilience
Stress can actually make you more resilient. You learn skills and coping mechanisms that allow you to face future stressors with more ease. Dealing with adversity helps you handle future adversity better. Stress teaches you how to tolerate and adapt to life difficulties; you learn new skills you can apply later in life; and you become more confident in your abilities to handle stress.
Seery et al found that overcoming a moderate amount of stress can actually improve mental health and wellbeing. They also found that those who have handled stress are more likely to take risks because they subconsciously know they can handle the stress that may come with failing.
Consider boot camp. Soldiers are put through extreme conditions, both physical and psychological, in order to prepare them. When they come into situations in battle, their bodies and minds already know how to react. When they are faced with real-life adversity, they already have the coping mechanisms and skills to overcome the stress from previous experience.
5. Develops sociability
A 2012 study found that students who were placed in a stress condition exhibited more pro-social behaviors. They were more willing to trust their partner and more willing to share with them. Stress may actually make us more social. This is likely because, biologically, when we are stressed, we have to rely on others for help.
This sociability is especially important for the workplace. CEOs can use times of stress and adversity to build a strong and resilient company culture.
6. Enriches life meaning
Stress may actually boost your life meaning. A 2013 study asked participants to respond to the following statement, “Taking all things together, I feel my life is meaningful.” Those individuals who had more stressful events in their lives were more likely to consider their lives meaningful than those with no or mild stress.
Stress is a natural part of life. Stressors can help you realize the importance and significance of your existence. It gives you a new perspective on the way you should be living. In fact, those who see stress as a means of enrichment are more likely to self-report their lives as meaningful.
Your perception of stress
Do you see stress as beneficial now?
Good, because here’s the kicker.
Studies show that if you see stress as a growth opportunity, you’ll perform better. If you perceive stress as positive, you are able to funnel that stress-related energy into something productive.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people with both high levels of stress and the belief it impacted their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who experienced high-stress but perceived its effects as neutral or positive were the least likely to die compared to all participants in the study. That’s right, participants with a positive outlook on high stress had a lower risk of death than even those in a low stress situation.
If you see stress as negative, you’ll allow it to overcome you. If you see it as a positive and protective physiological response, you can utilize it for productivity.
Change your attitude about stress and you can tap into a new energy source you didn’t realize you had.
You can learn more about the perception of stress with Kelly McGonical’s Ted Talk “How to make stress your friend”:
The Bottom Line
Stress is a part of life. There will always be situations we can’t control. But if you change your perception about these stressors, you’ll ensure they don’t kill you. In fact, if you change your perception about these stressors, you can leverage them to make you a more productive, resilient, and expressive person.
How do you feel about stress now?