We hear it all the time: Stress is unhealthy. But then we’ve all looked back at times we knew we were under pressure and thought the stress we felt was actually a good thing. If stress sometimes helps us to run faster, study harder or perform better, it can’t always be bad, can it?
In this blog, you will learn how stress can sometimes be good. You will also learn what transforms good stress into bad stress and how bad stress hurts your health.
Is Stress Ever Healthy?
While the word “stress” is primarily seen as negative, some stress is good for us. Possibly the most beneficial “healthy” stress is acute stress response or the “fight or flight” response. If our hearts didn’t pound, our sensations didn’t heighten and our bodies couldn’t perform seemingly impossible physical feats—like fighting off a rabid animal—then it’s very possible we would never survive threatening situations.
According to John Whyte, M.D., MPH, former chief medical expert and vice president of Health and Medical Education at Discovery Channel, stress has many benefits in non-threatening situations, too. Whyte says stress experienced in moderation can do all of the following.
- Sharpen Memory: Occasional stress can help you keep focused and improve your recall, which is great news for college students preparing for exams or professionals who give performance presentations to company leaders.
- Temporarily Boost Your Immune System: When you get sick, stress causes your body to produce hormones that battle threats to your health, which is particularly effective during the early stages of an illness.
- Improve Work Performance: Too little stress in the workplace often leads to complacency. Small bursts of stress, on the other hand, forces you to take risks and attack hurdles you may have otherwise left alone. Not only does this increase your marketability as an employee, it also builds your mental toughness and self-confidence.
- Make Life More Interesting: Without that tiny pang of stress, Whyte says, many of us may never put ourselves in challenging social situations that bring us fulfillment and happiness—situations like asking someone on a first date, interacting with a new group of people or signing up for classes to learn a new skill.
Health.com adds one more benefit of stress to the list: enhanced child development. According to a 2006 John Hopkins study, the children of women who reported mild to moderate stress levels during pregnancy showed greater motor and developmental skills by age 2 than children of unstressed mothers.
When is Stress Unhealthy, and How Do I Beat It?
While short bursts of stress can be beneficial, stress negatively affects our health and wellbeing when it becomes chronic or when we feel we’re no longer in control of a situation. According to the Mayo Clinic, the long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes and puts you at risk for numerous health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
The best way to ensure stress does not impact your health is to eradicate stressors from your life. For example, if much of your stress comes from work, you can try talking with your supervisor to develop a plan to combat stress.
If eliminating stressors entirely is not possible, your next best action is to improve how you respond to and manage stress. Good stress management strategies, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga
- Making time for hobbies that bring you joy
- Fostering healthy friendships
- Incorporating natural remedies for stress, like kava root extract, into your wellness regime.
- Seeking professional support