The Positive Side Of Stress

In general, stress is seen as a bad thing. And, really, when you look at the statistics, that makes a lot of sense. After all, stress-related ailments are the reported reason for 3 out of every 4 visits to the doctor, costing the U.S. nearly $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity.

But, is stress really all bad? Or are we just doing it wrong?

What’s Happening

To answer those questions, we first have to understand stress and why it’s there. The feeling that we identify as “stress” is the result of a series of biological responses designed to help us deal with potentially dangerous situations. In other words, stress is meant to protect you from perceived threats.

When your brain senses something in your environment that could do you harm – whether it’s a physical or emotional danger – a cascade of changes happen within your body that give you a boost of energy, sharpen your mental focus, and enhance your memory.

Of course, in order to accomplish this, certain sacrifices are made. Both your immune and digestive systems get a lower priority since the resources they need are required elsewhere. Your metabolism also changes, causing you to store more body fat just in case you need that energy later. When stress is short-lived, these negative impacts go pretty much unnoticed. It’s only when the stress is frequent and prolonged that problems occur.

Striking The Balance

And that pretty much explains how to use stress properly, the way it’s meant to be used. Stress is meant to be a short-term solution just to get us out of a specific situation. In order to enjoy the benefits of stress while minimizing the cons, you need to control stress.

Which, I know, is much easier said (or typed) than done. Interestingly, studies have found that the severity of a stress response largely depends on your confidence regarding the situation. Essentially, if you believe that you can handle the challenge, your perceived stress levels will be lower.

Count On Others

Those same studies have also found a direct connection between social support and a decreased impact of stress. Which has been known, intuitively, for a very long time. Friends and family can help to reduce stress. So, why does this research matter?

When you’re stressed, one of the many hormones that is released is called oxytocin, a chemical messenger responsible for building social connections. This is one key reason why people who go through a difficult situation together find themselves bonded for years to come, even if they didn’t really like one another beforehand. But oxytocin is also released, logically, when we go out of our way to create those connections ourselves. And oxytocin buffers stress. So, the more social support that we have, the more oxytocin will be in our system and the less stress will impact us.

Work It Out

Finally, exercise is one of the best ways to get through a stressful situation. And, again, this isn’t really news. People have always used exercise as a way to “blow off some steam” and reduce their feelings of stress.

Researchers are learning, however, that exercise helps you build more brain cells in response to stress – increasing your ability to deal with stress the next time you encounter it. Interestingly, those same responses that characterize a stress response – increased energy and focus – can give you a better workout than you might have gotten otherwise.