There are plenty of reasons to avoid stress: besides feeling flustered and frazzled, it also causes a spike in the hormone cortisol, linked to everything from weight gain and heart attacks to hair loss.
In fact, we’re so primed to see stress as a bad thing, there’s even been recent buzz building around a possible ‘stress vaccine’ that could one day help protect our brain from its effects. Mindblowing but true. So you’ll be as surprised as we were to hear that there are actually some positives to feeling stressed—and, even more amazingly, they have the potential to improve your health and vitality.
“It sounds strange, but stress can help give you the energy you need to live life,” explains Dr Jacob Teitelbaum, expert on sleep and pain and author of Real Cause, Real Cure (Rodale). “Without it, you wouldn’t have the energy you need to take action.”
Take adrenaline junkies, who seek out stressful situations in order to reap a physical and emotional high. Those anxious feelings trigger a fight-or-flight response that releases cortisol and adrenaline for a surge of energy that pushes you to react when you need to (such as moving fast if you’re about to be hit by a car or—less likely—chased by a lion) while offering health benefits like enhanced immunity.
“It’s when stress becomes excessive and lasts for long periods and when your body doesn’t release it through physical activity or emotional reactions, that it becomes unhealthy,” says Dr Teitelbaum.
It’s all about balance. While we’re not suggesting you find some hungry lions, some stress is not only healthy—it’s essential. So the next time your palms get sweaty before a speech or your pulse races when you’re getting cavities filled, take heart: it’s just your body’s natural defence system operating smoothly— as these five healthy benefits of stress show.
1. It helps the body ward off colds and infections
Stress as an immunity mechanism? It’s true! For example, if you’re feeling deadline pressure in the short-term, your body will most likely work overtime to keep you well. That’s because some stress is helpful to rev your immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria since it’s the stress-regulating adrenal glands that balance immunity. “These glands help release cortisol, an anti-inflammatory, in response to either physical or emotional stressors so you can tap into your energy reserves and resist infection,” says Dr Teitelbaum. It’s when your stress levels stay high for more than a few hours that you can exhaust your adrenal glands and become prone to getting sick and run down. The upshot? Keep your eye on your stress levels and don’t overdo it!
2. It can help speed up recovery after surgery
Let’s be honest: going under the knife is never relaxing. But the short-term stress of surgery can actually help you to heal faster. “The biological changes that take place during short-term stress are the brain’s way of preparing the body for something stressful that is about to happen or is already happening,” explains Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress and Health in the US. The idea is that short-term stress hormones surge through the body and get your system ready for the fast healing that will need to take place.
So, how does it do this? By triggering the release of the body’s ‘soldiers’ or immune cells into the bloodstream and redirecting those fighter cells to where they’re most needed for healing. Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine tested this hypothesis in humans by collecting a series of blood samples from 57 patients undergoing knee surgery before and after the procedure. Patients whose immune systems responded to the stress of surgery by mobilising and redistributing large numbers of pathogen-fighting cells recovered more quickly and completely.
3. It helps you bond with those around you
Picture this: you’re stuck in a lift for an hour with 10 strangers. By the time you’re rescued, you know each other’s life stories and have exchanged email addresses. The reason? Short-term stress has been shown to boost levels of oxytocin, also known as the bonding hormone, says stress expert Kathleen Hall, PhD.
“Oxytocin actually inhibits the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and reduces blood pressure by dilating the arteries to help buffer the body from the more negative affects of anxiety.”
4. It enhances your short-term memory
Have you ever been in a stressful situation where your mind felt super-aware and laser-sharp? It’s the rush of hormones to the prefrontal cortex (a brain region important for controlling cognition and emotion) that may boost your working memory—the short-term kind used in problem solving and processing sensory information. While some studies link chronic stress to the development of brain plaques tied to Alzheimer’s, acute stress has been shown to improve recall.
5. It boosts resilience to life’s ups and downs
There’s something to be said for the character-building qualities of a little bit of adversity. We all encounter stressful situations, whether that’s work pressures or relationship meltdowns. At the time, it may not feel like there’s much of a positive to be had, but those feelings of stress could be life-changing—in a good way! When psychologists recently asked nearly 2400 people about their history of adverse experiences, they found that those who had faced misfortune were actually more well adjusted than those who’d had no bumps in the road at all.
“Having to deal with challenges may toughen us up,” explains psychologist Mark Seery, PhD, lead author of the study. “And that leaves us much better equipped to deal with challenges.”