Image source: www.anxietyuk.org

Yesterday I gave a talk to about 100 Year 13 students at a secondary school and I asked: stress is bad for you. Who agrees? About 60% did…They looked surprised when I said that some stress can be good for us.

Over the last few years, stress has been presented as bad for us and that we need to do our best to try and reduce our stress levels at all cost. But could some stress be good for us?

If you always think about stress as a really bad thing, then I may have suprising news for you. According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, it’s not. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”.

Research carried out by Kaufer and her colleagues has uncovered exactly how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance.

In their work they studied the effects of stress on rats, and they looked specifically at the growth of stem cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in the stress response, and it’s also very important for learning and memory. They found that when rats are exposed to moderate stress for a short time—being immobilized for a few hours, for instance—stem cell growth is stimulated, and those cells go on to form neurons, or brain cells. A couple of weeks later, tests show improvements in learning and memory.

Kaufer thinks the same thing happens in people. Manageable stress increases alertness and performance. And by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, stress improves memory. She adds that extreme or chronic stress can have a negative effect. But moderate and short-lived stress—like an upcoming exam or preparing to deliver a speech in public—improves cognitive performance and memory.

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests the same things when they state that all stress is bad for us and that stress can motivate people to prepare or perform, like when they need to take a test or interview for a new job. Stress can even be life-saving in some situations because in response to danger, our body prepares to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, our pulse quickens, we breathe faster, our muscles tense, our brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival.

I think it is time to change the way we look at stress and to stop believing that stress has reached epidemic proportions. As Teen Mental Health.org state in their article ‘How not to bubble wrap kids’, learning how to use stress is an important part of having a good mental health.

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

So, being mentally healthy doesn’t mean always being happy and never experiencing any stress, worries or difficulties. It means experiencing stress and learning from these various experiences to develop the skills and competence required to face the challenges we will all experience throughout life.
We simply need to recognise the difference between short-term acute stress and long-term, chronic stress when the stress response goes on for too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.
In our next post, we will look at when stress can become too much and can become chronic and what we can do to use daily stress to develop resilience.

Sources:

http://www.teenmentalhealth.org/understanding-stress

http://teenmentalhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Stress-Two-pager.pdf

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. Kirby ED, Muroy SE, Sun WG, Covarrubias D, Leong MJ, Barchas LA, Kaufer D. Elife. 2013 Apr 16;2:e00362. doi: 10.7554/eLife.00362.