10 Surprising Ways Stress Can Be Good for Your Body
Stress is almost always the bad guy in life, but—surprise!—small or moderate amounts of it may actually make you feel stronger, smarter, and happier.
Stress isn’t all bad. In fact, a little can actually be good for you. What psychologists call “eustress” is the kind of stress you feel when you’re excited about, say, a first date, or when you’re watching a scary movie or successfully meeting a challenge at work. Keep reading for 10 surprising ways stress can be good for you (yes, really!).
Stress may make your brain grow
You know the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? That can be applied to stress, too, as short periods of stress can actually help the brain improve. In a study published in 2013 in eLife, researchers placed rats in a short-term stressful situation (they were immobilized in their cage for a few hours), and the experience doubled the growth of new brain cells. The rodents also did better on a memory test later on. The researchers think the same thing happens in people—manageable stress increases alertness and performance. “When we experience stress, we have an increase in arousal, which signals to us that something important is happening,” explains Bethany Teachman, PhD, a professor of psychology at University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “If we appraise the situation as challenging but manageable, then the arousal helps us focus and direct effort toward addressing the challenge. Think about how difficult it is to give a good presentation or performance if you feel no arousal at all.” (Check out some more about brain development: 10 ways your brain changes as you get older.)
Stress may improve your memory
Remembering details of a stressful encounter is critical for survival. Animals who are better at remembering dangerous situations can avoid them in the future. “If an animal encounters a predator and manages to escape, it’s important to remember where and when that encounter happened,” says neuroscientist Daniela Kaufer, PhD, a professor in the department of integrative biology and acting associate dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, CA. “It makes sense then, that exposure to moderate stress can enhance your memory of the event. Likewise, if you’re walking down an alley and somebody threatens you, it’s important to remember exactly where you were in order to avoid that alley in the future.”
The brain is constantly responding to stress. “Biologically, the exposure to moderate stress causes an increase in the generation of specialized cells that participate in memorizing the stressful event,” says Kaufer. (Beware of these 8 things that get way harder when you’re stressed.)
Stress may give you energy
Short-term stress can bump up your energy a notch or two, especially if it’s the good kind. “Positive stress, known as ‘eustress,’ is an experience that offers a beneficial form of arousal,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression and an adjunct professor at Adelphi University. “Situations that challenge us, or are exciting and stimulating, place stress on our mind and body—but the experience doesn’t necessarily cause discomfort. Instead, eustress motivates us, sharpens our senses, and helps us problem solve successfully.” Good stress actually creates new neural pathways and stimulates healthful endorphins. We’re talking about challenges like giving a speech, receiving a promotion at work, performing on stage, having a baby, or moving to a new home. Think of it as a kind of physical exercise—it puts stress on the body but it makes you feel pumped up rather than depleted. (Here’s how to boost your energy.)
Stress may keep you from getting sick
It’s true that long-term, chronic stress can make you more prone to illness—but short-term “good” stress can actually provide some protection against getting sick. “Eustress increases your immune functioning,” Dr. Serani says. Research, including a review of studies published in 2013 in Psychoneuroendocrinology, suggests that manageable levels of stress may promote resilience and resistance to diseases.
Stress may make your kids savvier
Good news for pregnant women who are experiencing the normal anxieties and stresses common to the demands of modern life: Short-term stress situations don’t have a negative effect on the development of the fetus, suggests a study published in 2017 in Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress. Of course, no one’s suggesting pregnant women should seek out stress, but if you’re feeling a bit anxious, it’s OK. Other research has shown that those who experience brief stress in early life—like a short separation from their mother—actually had less anxiety and better brain function as adults. Longer stress in infancy and childhood is still associated with negative outcomes, though.
Stress helps you get in the zone
The surge in energy that short-term stress gives you can also help you focus. Psychologists call this feeling “flow,” and good stress can help you achieve it. “A stressor like running a marathon, taking an exam, starting a new job, giving a presentation, meeting a new friend, taking on a new hobby, getting married, or becoming a new parent will kick-start neurobiology in a way that will get you into the zone,” Dr. Serani says. This is why some people work better under pressure—the short-term stress helps your brain zero in on the one task it needs to do, and shut out everything else. (Beware of these 10 ways to reduce stress that can actually backfire.)
Stress can give you confidence
When you’re facing a challenge that’s not out of the realm of possibility for you to meet, you’re experiencing stress that’s actually going to help you succeed. “What research tells us about eustress is that it accesses our neuroendocrine system differently than distress, which is stress that’s too overwhelming,” Dr. Serani says. “Eustress stimulates more health-enhancing biochemistry like endorphins than distress does.” For example, if you feel your heart starting to race before a big presentation, think of it as your body rising to the challenge, rather than your body freaking out. Making that tiny mental switch can help you channel good stress, so it’s more likely to help your performance than hurt it. (Here are 14 things only people with anxiety will understand.)
Stress makes you better adjusted
Dealing with some amount of stress is a normal part of life, and those who can look at it in a positive way may enjoy more beneficial and fewer negative effects. “The impact of stress depends a lot on the meaning we assign to the situation, our perception of how difficult managing the situation will be, and how adequate our personal resources are to meet the demands,” says Dr. Teachman. “If we believe that the stressor presents an insurmountable threat, we are likely to experience the negative consequences of stress because we think the situation has overwhelmed our coping resources. If, instead, we view the situation as a difficult challenge but one that we are capable of managing, then we are motivated to take steps to meet the challenge because we believe we have that capability.”
The key is not to avoid stress, but to find healthy ways to manage it when it happens. To do this, view your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating. Think of it as an energy you can use to finesse the stress in your life. Imagine, for instance, “the range of responses to an upcoming big exam,” says Dr. Teachman. “One student thinks there is no way he can do well on the exam and feels defeated by the stress, and doesn’t even bother studying. Another student facing the same exam expects it will be very difficult but thinks that she can do well if she studies hard. The same stressor can lead to very different responses. It’s helpful to remember that there’s often more than one way to view a situation and that we have handled stress in the past.” (Make sure you know about these telltale signs you’re more stressed than you realize.)
Stress may help you handle more stress
It sounds silly, but managing stress helps you manage more stress. Psychologists call this stress inoculation. “It can be helpful to learn which coping responses work well for you in different situations so you build a strong repertoire of strategies to manage different types of challenges,” says Dr. Teachman. “Having a successful experience of managing a stressful situation well builds your self-efficacy, which is the belief that you have the resources and ability to achieve your goals. When we feel we can be effective, it builds our motivation to take on bigger challenges.” Even when a situation doesn’t turn out well, you can learn from the experience. What did and didn’t work and how might you respond differently in the future? “If we view stressful situations as an opportunity to learn, rather than a threat of failure,” adds Dr. Teachman, “we are better positioned to effectively manage challenges.”
You’re more likely to see your life as meaningful
Going through stressful situations can make you appreciate life more. That could be because those who are more engaged in activities and relationships are more invested in life. So if you reframe how you view stress in this way, you can encourage its positive effects. “When you think about stress, remember that the word itself doesn’t always mean something bad,” Dr. Serani says. “Moderate amounts of eustress can help you cope with life in meaningful ways.” Next, check out these 33 ways to make managing stress much easier.
- The American Institute of Stress, "The good stress: How eustress helps you grow"
- eLife, "Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2"
- Bethany Teachman, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA
- Daniela Kaufer, PhD, professor in the department of integrative biology and acting associate dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, CA
- Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression and an adjunct professor at Adelphi University
- Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, "Second-trimester amniotic fluid corticotropin-releasing hormone and urocortin in relation to maternal stress and fetal growth in human pregnancy"
- Psychoneuroendocrinology,"Good Stress, Bad Stress and Oxidative Stress: Insights From Anticipatory Cortisol Reactivity"