You might have heard about the phrase “stress can kill”, but this is not entirely true. Stress can be a useful and healthy reaction to a challenging situation. It can also help you in dealing with the most difficult situations in life. However, too much stress can harm you physically and mentally. So, how do you know if stress is good or bad for you?
Benefits of stress for your body
There are many benefits of stress, so let’s begin with the health benefits. Stress increases your alertness and gives you the feeling of urgency. The adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol hormones to help you cope with challenging situations. If you experience chronic stress, these hormones may build up in your blood and cause a number of diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, stroke and hypertension. Therefore, constant stress is bad for your health.
A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that people who regularly experience prolonged or severe stress have more than three times higher risk for death from heart disease compared to those with no or minimal stress. What’s more – when you are chronically stressed out, it can increase the risk of obesity due to increased appetite caused by high levels of cortisol hormone in your body (stress also affects how much food you want to eat).
Another study published in Psychology & Health also found that high level of cortisol hormone is linked to a greater likelihood for weight gain during pregnancy among women who experienced chronic stressful life events earlier in life. On top of that – having too much cortisol can even harm the immune system. It makes sense if we look at how human bodies react after exposure to extreme forms of stressful stimuli: our skin becomes pale and clammy; we sweat more; breathing becomes shallow; blood pressure rises; our muscles tense up; nausea can occur and blood sugar levels drop (and therefore insulin resistance increases ).
Benefits of stress for your mind
The benefits of stress are not limited to the body only. Stress has a positive effect on our brains too, as long as we deal with it appropriately. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who regularly experience chronic stress have more gray matter in their brains.
Gray matter is responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as memory and attention, and is associated with positive outcomes, such as success in school and work. The same study also found that people who experienced stressful events were more likely to perform worse on tests measuring cognitive functions, which indicates that chronic stress is bad for your brain.
If you’re worried about your mental health after a challenging situation or relationship break-up – don’t be! A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that experiencing negative life events may actually be good for you. In other words – even if your life is not great at the moment, it might just be what you need to grow stronger and wiser. As long as you’re not using your stress for negative reasons, stress can actually help you to improve your life in the long term.
How to deal with stress?
As we have seen, there are many benefits of stress on our bodies and our minds. If that is the case – why do so many people find it difficult to cope with stressful situations? How can we deal with them better? A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that experiencing a major life event (such as loss of a job, divorce or break-up) triggers a cascade of physiological changes in your body that help you cope with this event, even if it was bad for your health.
However, after the initial ‘fight-or-flight’ response ends, these changes will only last for about 20 minutes or so – and then they will return to normal! If you are constantly exposed to stressful situations , this can mean that your body gets used to the stress and will not be able to react in the same way when you experience stressful events later in life.
The way we deal with stress is also important. For example, if you try to distract yourself from a situation by doing something else, this is actually not good for your mental health. Research shows that engaging in a hobby, doing sports or just having fun actually helps us better deal with stressful situations (as long as we don’t overdo it!).
The good news is that you can actually improve your emotional response to stress through mindfulness training – a kind of meditation practice aimed at improving our attention and awareness of our present-moment experiences. In other words – if you learn how to focus on what’s happening right now – even if it’s negative – it can help you to reduce your fear or anxiety and react more appropriately when faced with difficult situations.
A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that mindfulness training is effective in reducing stress-related symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. The effects are particularly strong when you have a tendency towards negative thinking (such as worrying).
Overall, stress can be helpful in many situations, but it also has negative effects on your health and your ability to perform well at work or at school. If you find yourself constantly stressed out – take some time to relax and chill out! Take a look at our ‘How to relax’ guide!