Good Stress: What Are the Benefits?

Sometimes being stressed isn't such a bad thing.

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We've heard over and over that stress is unhealthy and that we should try to manage stress as much as we can.

But getting worked up isn't always a bad thing, said Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham; after all, the body's fight-or-flight response is meant to be protective, not harmful.

Here's more about good stress, as well as how a little short-term anxiety can actually benefit your brain and body.

Does Good Stress Exist?

Yes, it does: Good stress, also known as eustress, is defined as "the positive stress response involving optimal levels of stimulation," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). In other words, it is stress that may arise from doing something demanding but enjoyable. Some examples of activities or events that might result in good stress are:

  • Going into retirement
  • Starting a family
  • Preparing for a new job position
  • Being involved in an athletic event

Though good stress comes about due to anticipation of something exciting, it is not the only kind of stress with better outcomes. Its opposite, distress—which is what we think of when stress comes to mind, per the APA—can benefit our minds and bodies as well.

How Can Stress Be Beneficial?

Short-term reactions to stress in general can actually be helpful in dealing with a stressful experience, according to MedlinePlus. Thus, stress can be advantageous in a few ways.

It Helps Boost Brainpower

Low-level stressors stimulate the production of brain chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain. In fact, this may be the primary mechanism by which exercise (a physical stressor) helps boost productivity and concentration, Dr. Shelton said. Additionally, a 2017 review published in EXCLI Journal indicated that stress has the potential to aid in improving your memory in a short time span for some situations (e.g., needing to take a written exam).

It Can Increase Immunity—In the Short Term

"When the body responds to stress, it prepares itself for the possibility of injury or infection," Dr. Shelton explained. "One way it does this is by producing extra interleukins—chemicals that help regulate the immune system—providing at least a temporary defensive boost." Specifically, experiencing short-term stress might offer immunity-based protection if a person is wounded or has an infection, for example, as noted in an April 2018 Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology study.

It Can Make You More Resilient

Learning to deal with stressful situations can make future ones easier to manage. It's the idea behind Navy SEAL training, Dr. Shelton said—although you can certainly benefit from less extreme experiences as well. "Repeated exposure to stressful events gives [SEALs] the chance to develop both a physical and psychological sense of control, so when they're in actual combat they don't just shut down," Dr. Shelton added.

It May Motivate You To Succeed

Stress may be just the thing you need to get tasks done at work. "Think about a deadline: It's staring you in the face, and it's going to stimulate your behavior to really manage the situation effectively, rapidly, and more productively," Dr. Shelton explained. The key, Dr. Shelton said, is viewing stressful situations as a challenge that you can meet, rather than an overwhelming, unpassable roadblock.

It's only when stress becomes chronic, or when we feel we're no longer in control of a situation, that it negatively affects our health and wellbeing. If you find that you are still having difficulty managing your stress, talk with a healthcare provider or mental health professional. Either individual will be able to assist you in finding stress management techniques or treatments that will work best for you.

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