Is a little stress good for you?

stressed woman at a computer
On the road to wellness? Not quite.

Though we tend to think of stress as merely a psychological problem, it has far-reaching effects on the body, too. The stress response is intended to aid us in times of danger or strife. When we perceive a real, physical hazard, a switch inside of us flips and our bodies go into "fight-or-flight" mode.

Adrenaline rushes through the body, senses sharpen, our minds work faster and more efficiently, memory recall improves and the heart starts beating faster. All of this comes in handy when we're sprinting away from a mountain lion or fighting in a parking lot. But it's not a sustainable state of being, and it's meant only to be a short-term condition. Presumably, both a chase and a fight will end, and most often rather quickly.


In order for this stress response to exist in times of danger, we must have the ability to perceive danger. This is where the trouble comes in. Now that we're perceiving danger, we can see it in all kinds of places: the mortgage that might go unpaid, the impending layoffs at work, the less-than-appealing jerk your daughter is dating.

Few of us frequently encounter life-or-death scenarios. So, in our minds, the next worst thing takes their place. Why be built with a high gear if you never use it, right? That term paper has to be finished by morning, you have to race the meter maid to your illegally parked car, table seven is demanding a refill of their drinks and you've forgotten table three's entire order -- these aren't hungry mountain lions chasing you, but they can feel just as stressful.

What's the difference between being crippled by worry and anxiety and feeling the urge to "power through" and meet the challenge? Why would stress be bad for us, if it's a response hardwired into our design?


The Body Under Stress: Danger, Will Robinson!

Stress is one or more outside forces exerting physical or psychological pressure on a person. When the body detects stress, it responds with the stress response. The stress response can be produced not only by negative events, but by positive events as well. When presented with a certain level of stimulation (which varies for everyone), our bodies release hormones that ramp up our metabolism. This occurs when chemical signals are sent from the brain's hypothalamus to the pituitary gland to the adrenal cortex. The end result is the release of steroids such as cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol affects you in many ways: It improves your ability to process and use sugars, it allows for faster repair of tissue damage and it shuts down the processes of your body deemed unnecessary at that time, such as growth and digestion.


Adrenaline gets your body ready for action: Your heart pounds and your blood pressure increases because your heart is contracting harder. Your lungs open up, the bronchioles expanding in preparation to meet the demands for more oxygen. You begin to sweat. You become hyperfocused, viewing the world almost literally with tunnel vision as your peripheral vision diminishes. You're ready to face that mountain lion -- or to ask for that raise.

When the excitement fades, so do your elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline. However, when you perceive different sources of stress all around you -- be it finances, career, marriage or traffic -- your stress response never fully turns off, and the long-term presence of those stress hormones begins to wreak havoc on your body. With stress hormones present, your body processes sugar quickly, and when it runs out of sugar, tissue and muscle damage occur. Over time, constant stress can lead to heart disease, digestive issues, depression, bone loss and sleep disorders. The immune system gets a short-term boost from a stress response, but after a few minutes it goes downhill as the number of cells tasked with fighting infection, tumors and viruses decreases [source: American Psychological Association].

So how could stress possibly be good for you? Keep reading to find out.


Short-term Stress: Just a Little Bit

Even in the absence of a life-threatening situation, stress isn't all bad. In fact, depending on how you react to it, it can even be good. With around three out of five medical visits precipitated by the effects of stress, this claim may initially be hard to believe [source: Benson].

Too much stress ultimately leads to health problems, but too little stress isn't good for us, either. When we go too long without a sharp stimulating response, the body loses some of its ability to handle stress properly. So when it does occur, the out-of-practice system may trigger too many stress hormones -- and be unable to switch out of emergency mode.


Just a little bit of stress, however, may do the trick. Short-term stress helps us perform at a higher level, improves our memory and our immune system. It also activates brain cells, which means that periodic stimulation may prevent Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

Of course, measures of stress are quite subjective, and the ability to handle stress varies from person to person, as does the perception of how bad the stress is. So while it's impossible to insert exactly just a little bit of stress into your life, it is possible to improve your ability to handle stress, which makes all the difference.

If you recognize that an excessive stress response to rather mundane matters isn't effective, it's possible to adjust how you respond. It is, after all, your hypothalamus that's dictating when to release stress hormones and at what levels -- and it's operating off your perception of the situation. So, if your mind considers traffic jams and canceled flights total disasters over which you have no control, your hypothalamus will do its job and see that you have high levels of stress hormones to deal with the catastrophe. But if you put these things in perspective as mere inconveniences, your hypothalamus won't order up a flood of adrenaline when it's bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to the horizon.

The key is turning off the stress response through meditation, exercise, prioritizing tasks and cutting yourself some slack when you're feeling overwhelmed by life, work or the ever-ticking clock.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Psychological Association. "Stress Weakens the Immune System." Feb. 23, 2006. (May 1, 2009)
  • Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. "The Stress Response." (May 1, 2009)
  • Benson, Herbert, MD. "Video: Easy Ways to Take the Edge Off." ABC News. April 22, 2009.
  • Carmichael, Mary. "Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?" Newsweek. Feb. 14, 2009.
  • HealthDay News. "Across the U.S., stress varies by region." April 14, 2009.
  • Het, Serkan; et al. "Mood Changes in Response to Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Young Women: Effects of Pretreatment With Cortisol." Behavioral Neuroscience, 2007, Vol 121, No. 1, pgs. 11-20.
  • Kotz, Deborah. "Relax! Stress, if Managed, Can Be Good For you." U.S. News & World Report. June 5, 2008.
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Stress: Win control over the stress in your life." Sept. 12, 2008. (May 1, 2009)
  • MedicineNet. "Adrenaline." (May 1, 2009)
  • Panzarino, Peter J. "Stress." (May 1, 2009)
  • Weaver, Jane. "Can stress actually be good for you?" Dec. 20, 2006.