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7 Ways Stress Can Actually Be Good for You

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
12/27/2010 5:00 AM   :  23 comments   :  24,839 Views

See More: woman's day,
via our partners at Woman's Day

Everyone dreads the S-word—and for good reason: Too much stress can have negative health consequences, like weight gain and depression. But, we’re often so focused on battling stress at work, in our relationships and everywhere else that it can be surprising to hear that some of that anxiety may actually be natural and normal. Even more, it might even be there to help you be healthier, happier and your ultimate best self. Strange? We thought so too, until we talked to health experts and found out about the many ways that stress can actually help you. From boosting your immune system to helping you get fit, read on to learn about the benefits of having a little stress in your life.

  1. It can help you be more creative. Ask any writer or artist about the creative process and she’ll tell you that her best work often comes as a result of a lot of head-pounding frustration and borderline agony. There’s a reason for that, says Larina Kase, PhD, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist and the author of The Confident Leader: How the Most Successful People Go from Effective to Exceptional.

    “Stress often precedes or accompanies creative breakthroughs,” she says. “If our minds are totally calm and relaxed, they don’t need a reason to see things differently. We’re likely to feel an increase in stress when we hit on a new path because change is typically associated with new stress. Your creative output feels intimidating because it’s different for you and you don’t know how others will react [to it].”
     
  2. It may be good for your immune system. Research has shown that the immune system may benefit from short bursts of stress that elicit our “fight or flight mechanism.” (Think of the stress you’d endure while taking a timed exam, running a race or playing a game with a timer.)

    “Stress in short bursts can be helpful to the immune system,” says Mark Goulston, MD, a clinical psychiatrist and author of Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior, who explains that when cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”) is released, it increases immunity in the body. But, he says, it’s a delicate balance.

    While these so-called bursts of stress may keep your body strong, vibrant and maybe even healthy, Dr. Goulston warns that too much stress can lead to cortisol overload, which can contribute to abdominal obesity. “This type of central obesity is linked to developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus and cerebrovascular disease,” he says.
     
  3. It may help you get fit. Lifting weights, running or spending 45 sweaty minutes on the exercise bike are all forms of stress on your body. But it’s good stress, says Jessica Matthews, MS, continuing education coordinator for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and ACE-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. “The stress that moderate exercise provides is quite healthy and provides many positive effects,” says Matthews.

    “From a physiological perspective, the demands being placed on the body during exercise help it to become more efficient in completing everyday activities. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce the level of stress hormones in the body, such as cortisol, while simultaneously increasing the level of endorphins in the body, resulting in that ‘feel good’ sensation. In fact, research has even shown that exercise itself may make us more resilient to stress overall.”
     
  4. It may help with problem solving. Are you experiencing stress from a dilemma in your life or from having to make a big decision? This type of worrying may actually be beneficial. Here’s why, says Dr. Kase. “Stress illuminates our values,” she says. “If we didn’t care about something, we wouldn’t worry about it.” So, listen to what your stress is trying to tell you.

    “Research shows that we tend to be happiest when we go with our gut,” she says. But excessive worrying can sometimes backfire. “It’s hard to hear your intuition when you’re in a cycle of worry and stress, so give yourself a break—take a long walk, get a good night’s sleep or go out for a bite to eat.”
     
  5. It may keep your kids safe. According to some experts, mothers who feel more stress may keep their kids out of harm’s way (after all, if you’re more concerned about kidnappers, you’re more likely to keep a watchful eye on your toddler at the playground, right?). In fact, research from Johns Hopkins University has suggested that children of mothers who showed elevated levels of cortisol during pregnancy were developmentally advanced compared to children of mothers who exhibited little stress.

    Of course, everyone knows that a mom who is too stressed out is never a good thing, but a little stress in motherhood is natural and normal, say experts. “If stress can increase your alertness, that's good,” says Dr. Goulston, but be wary of hyper-alertness or hyper-vigilance, which can cause people to become “brittle and rigid, which can lead to impulsive behavior.”
     
  6. It may get you a raise. Putting in long hours at the office? Feeling jumpy every time your boss walks into your cubicle? Sure, serious job stress can be unhealthy—even debilitating—but the kind of stress that keeps you on your toes in your professional environment may be good for your career, say experts.

    “An optimal level of stress and anxiety keeps you energized, focused and motivated,” says Dr. Kase. “Without enough stress, you’re unlikely to give your full effort and you may also be prone to making mistakes. If you’re too comfortable, that can be a sign that you aren’t pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and taking the risks necessary to advance your career, such as marketing yourself or asking for a promotion.”

    But, she adds, be careful how you control your on-the-job stress. “Successfully handling stress is the number-one way to build your confidence in your work and in any other area of your life,” she says. “Too much stress saps your ability to see innovative solutions and takes a toll on your energy and efficiency.”

    Dr. Kase also says a few warnings signs that indicate your job stress is too high include avoiding important work activities because you find them too stressful, or feeling like you are not valuable in the workplace.
     
  7. It could keep you healthier after a surgical or medical treatment. Recent research has shown a link between short-term stress before a surgical or medical procedure and a more successful recovery experience. And it appears that a fighting spirit can also help in the battle against breast cancer.

    Some research indicates that stress may suppress the production of estrogen, a major player in the development of breast cancer. Whether this holds true across the board is questionable, but experts say it’s another important example of how stress isn’t entirely bad.

    “Our stress response is our being alerted to a challenge, a danger or even an opportunity,” explains Dr. Goulston. “Stress also triggers adrenaline release, and a surge of adrenaline can help you focus and think more clearly.”
Sarah Jio is the health and fitness blogger for Glamour.com. Visit her blog, Vitamin G.

Related links:
9 Surprising Symptoms of Stress

8 Foods that Fight Stress

Smart Ways to Stop Worrying

Does stress ever motivate you?


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Comments

  • 23
    Interesting article,but why was #2 reason for stress left out?Now I am stressed to know what that was! - 1/25/2011   6:38:24 AM
  • 22
    Hmmm, I kind of liked this article. I spend too much time stressing over being stressed! I am quite the procrastinator ... and am well familiar with that 'aha' moment that fortunately for me "always" seems to come just in the nick of time when I am working on a project or paper. I spend a lot of time wishing I could & trying to change; this helped me see that maybe it is the "stress" itself that is causing my brain to see things differently. Maybe I can use this info to help manage the stress, create different deadlines or stress points for myself. Because I have to admit, my habits not only stress me out, they stress my bosses! I'm going to have to look for that book on becoming "exceptional." - 1/22/2011   10:49:05 AM
  • 21
    I agree that this article can lead to a lot of confusion. You have to read carefully where it says..."caution". Just as with most things in life, stress and how you deal with it requires balance. There are different types of stress...some good for you some bad for you. I think this article should have defined the various types of stress. If you would like definitions of the various types of stress, this article is fairly easy to read and accurate: http://www.stressfocus.com/stress_f
    ocus_article/types-of-stress.htm


    I also agree that the level of stress we feel in various situations is not so much caused by the situations themselves but by our reaction to the situation. - 1/9/2011   11:16:09 AM
  • 20
    Interesting article. The article doesn't go into the different kinds of stress. This article only focuses on the positive aspects of a "small" amount of stress. Constent overwhelming stress is not good for you, and I believe that is what the other SP article is talking about. Thanks SP for showing us positive outcomes. - 12/31/2010   2:03:25 AM
  • 19
    YES! That's why I did well in my extracurricular activities and hit number 3 out of about 400 in my class! WOOT STRESS! - 12/30/2010   7:42:46 AM
  • SVENJAH
    18
    CONFLICT of information from Spark:
    http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource
    /wellness_articles.asp?id=697

    When you're stressed out, you just don’t function at your best, mentally, emotionally, or physically. In fact, chronic stress tends to make you into your own worst enemy, impairing your judgment, making you emotionally hyper-reactive, messing up your metabolism, and generally making it more difficult to do the things you need to in order to lose weight. - 12/29/2010   4:34:41 PM
  • SVENJAH
    17
    A relaxed mind is a creative mind. - 12/29/2010   4:00:55 PM
  • IVY_13
    16
    Yes, very misleading indeed. If I'm running away from a tiger, a short burst of stress is a good thing, otherwise, not so much. All that stress builds and it has nowhere productive to go. Also, as someone who writes creatively, a lot, I don't find it at all stressful. Those times I do, I do something else because it's only when I'm relaxed that the ideas flow unhindered. - 12/29/2010   2:00:39 AM
  • SUGARSMOM2
    15
    stress my daughter is sufferining . from this and i think my son is ready to flip . worried about my children even though they are grown and no longer my little children . life has kicked them in the teeth and it has taken a toll upon them . I want to help but how ?? son is humming to himself . like he belongs in the looney bin . daughter is crying at the drop of a hat . they are married and do not live together . each has there own place and life . - 12/28/2010   6:16:30 PM
  • 14
    The article does mix the meaning of stress. However, in general, we are all going to be exposed to stress and how we deal with it determines the outcome. What is stressful to one person is not to another, because we each have different strengths and abilities. Going out of our comfort zone is how we grow as people. Isn't that the point of Sparkpeople? We learn a new lifestyle, which is stressful yet good for us. - 12/28/2010   12:51:50 PM
  • 13
    I consider this article to be extremely misleading. Example, it says that engaging in a strength training program that "stresses" your muscles is good for you. This is true. Challenging your muscle IS good for your body. However, this is a type of stress that doesn't tax a person's emotions.

    Too much stress not only taxes a person's body, but their psyche and emotions too. I totally disagree with this article. If anything, we should be trying to decrease our over all stress whenever we can. Is a little stress good ? Honestly, any type of stress that causes us some kind of mental, physical or emotional distress is not good.

    This article is no different than doctors who used to tell their patients they should smoke because it would help relax them. So, how well did that work out ???? Maybe we should all smoke because doctors said we should.

    Well, it strikes me that there is no scientific evidence that backs up the articles claim. It's nothing more than hearsay.



    - 12/28/2010   9:41:00 AM
  • LAURANCE
    12
    I'm not relating to this article at all. While I do believe that the physical stress from exercise is beneficial and that mild, short-term stress can motivate people, this grinding, bone-crushing, depressing, daily and unending stress is a life ruiner. I'm an artist, or I should say I'd love to be, but I'm too debilitated from stress to do my work. I see my work table and my things. I know there are lovely things I could do, but I'm too burned out and depressed from an impossible situation, nor do I see an end in sight. No, I don't see any benefit to this kind of stress. - 12/28/2010   7:46:37 AM
  • 11
    for me i guess it depends on the type of stress im taking..family stress..certainly doesnt prove good for me..work stress..works well sometimes.
    either ways i would rather be without it. i cant handle it well for myself but if i see someone in stress i can give some really good advices on how to handle it. weird but true. - 12/28/2010   12:25:48 AM
  • 10
    I recently listened to a series of lectures on the body is affected by stress by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. Stress is mostly bad news for humans, because unlike other animals, we don't usually suffer stress for the critical few minutes that it may take to get away from a predator or out of a dangerous situation. During periods of stress, there are many changes in the body that are intended to help us in the short term. If they extend beyond the short term, they can affect growth, reproduction, immunity, and our susceptibility to diseases such as cancer. Short term stress can make us more alert and active, but how do we turn it off before it does a lot of damage? The message at the end is more encouraging. There is one thing we can do to combat stress and its damaging effects: exercise. - 12/27/2010   9:16:25 PM
  • 9
    I remember telling my Ph.D. advisor that I wished I was more like another student who was very laid back. She said that was all well and good, but I had my presentation for an rapidly approaching conference ready to go and she hadn't begun. There is an area of study that examines stress resistance. Basically those who experience and cope effectively with small stressors are much better at dealing with large stressors. - 12/27/2010   7:15:56 PM
  • 8
    I'm a life-long procrastinator, and, while it's often intensely frustrating to be faced with a 5-hour project and 2 hours, it's true--my creativity and problem-solving skills go into overdrive, and I (almost always) end up with a product I couldn't have envisioned, let alone produced, had I made 'better' use of my time. But I don't recommend it to my students as a way of life, and it's a skill to be used with care and deliberation (if that's not a contradiction in concepts--a deliberate procrastinator?)

    Part of the 'problem' with this blog is it uses "stress" for two entirely different types of feeling. That lack of precision isn't necessary with English (we have LOTS of synonyms for stress--some with positive connotations, like 'concentrated effort'--but it makes a better headline, and that's what journalism tends to want). - 12/27/2010   11:40:59 AM
  • 7
    I am an artist and point #1 is well taken & documented. Chronic, unrelenting stress is not good for anyone, but like many things all stress is not a bad thing... - 12/27/2010   11:34:14 AM
  • 6
    If stress can suppress estrogen in regards to breast cancer, than my breast cancer should never return. I've also read that stress can increase the chances of it recurring. What to believe? - 12/27/2010   11:32:48 AM
  • 5
    Hummm . . . I feel like this is making lemonade out of a bad situation. Stress isn't bad for you, what is bad, however, how the individual person copes. So, maybe this has merit, but I'm skeptical. But either way, I'll try to not stress over it! - 12/27/2010   11:10:01 AM
  • GMAGEE
    4
    Interesting. I have always enjoyed my job stress: tackling each project, solving its challenges and problems, and meeting deadlines. I think it did keep me thin and left me feeling satisfied and happy. Never enjoyed the stress my daughter gave me, especially in her teen and college years. That helped me to gain weight which I am STILL trying to lose! - 12/27/2010   11:06:13 AM
  • 3
    So, what he's saying is.... it's a fine balancing act...

    Not too little, not too much, and like Goldilocks' big adventure, and it's JUST RIGHT!

    I'm reminded of a friend who once confided in me, "I don't work well when under pressure," and I had to admit to myself that I don't work AT ALL unless I'm under pressure! - 12/27/2010   10:45:16 AM
  • 2
    We've all heard (or been) people who work best under pressure. I appreciate this article about the positive side of stress. Learning to capture the energy stress brings is a true gift! - 12/27/2010   10:04:24 AM
  • LQUEST4754
    1
    I am a low key kind of person. I do not like to think of stress at all. At most I like to think of it as a challenge or opportunity to learn something new. - 12/27/2010   9:56:53 AM

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