For most of us stress is, by definition, bad. Tell someone you're stressed out and they're pretty much guaranteed to respond with concern and sympathy.
Yet stress is also incredibly common. We've all experienced it as a fairly routine part of moving through the world. Are our bodies just torturing us? Is stress some outmoded response -- like an emotional appendix -- that's left over from our hunter gatherer days but is no longer useful?
Not at all, believes UC Berkeley stress researchers Daniella Kaufer. In a fascinating recent interview with her university's Greater Good Science Center she explains that the latest science on stress contradicts popular perception -- in the right dose and taken with the right attitude stress is downright healthy.
Stress boosts brainpower.
"We're learning that moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits. The stress response is designed to help us react when something potentially threatening happens, to help us deal with it and learn from it. Our research shows that moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory," Kaufer explains.
How does she know? Along with fellow researchers Kaufer examines the effects of stress on the brains of monkeys. Far from frazzling their neural circuitry, the scientists have shown that stress helps monkey brains generate new cells that boost the animals' ability to learn and remember. They believe humans work the same way. Stress builds our brainpower rather than destroys it.
When does stress turn bad?
Of course, not all stress is beneficial. People vary when it comes to how much stress they can usefully take, but there are two general factors that help turn stress from a healthy response into a harmful condition. The first is duration. Stress is designed to be a short-term response to a specific threat or problem. When stress becomes chronic, lasting days, weeks or years it's decidedly not healthy.
"Chronic stress can constrict blood vessels and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Research shows that too much stress can suppress the immune system. Ours and other research has shown that chronic stress also reduces fertility in animals," reports Kaufer.
The second factor is attitude. How you feel about stress makes a big difference in how healthy that stress is for you. If you believe you have control over your situation and can manage your stress levels, you're much more likely to do well. "People who feel resilient and confident that they can manage stress are much less likely to be overwhelmed by it," notes Kaufer.
Strategies for making the most of your stress
So how can you ensure your stress is the good, brain-boosting kind not the bad, heart attack-inducing kind? Of course, we can't control all the aspects of our life that stress us out, but we can control our attitude and responses. Again, confidence that you can manage stress is often enough to make stress not only manageable but downright healthy.
"Another powerful factor is social support. If you have friends and family you can turn to during a stressful period, you're more likely to handle the stress well. Social support buffers stress," Kaufer adds. She also recommends physical exercise to keep your stress levels within healthy limits, nothing that "rodents that are allowed to run are more likely to create new brain cells in response to stress than sedentary animals. I think the same thing may work for people."
So next time you feel your adrenalin pumping and your brain whirring, remind yourself that stress is useful and that you can probably handle it. Then call some friends and get off the couch. Your brain will thank you.
Is your attitude to stress inadvertently making it worse?