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. You ask if this is 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."
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