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.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Psychological Association. "Stress Weakens the Immune System." Feb. 23, 2006. (May 1, 2009)http://www.psychologymatters.org/stressimmune.html
- Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. "The Stress Response." (May 1, 2009) http://www.mbmi.org/basics/whatis_stress_response.asp
- Benson, Herbert, MD. "Video: Easy Ways to Take the Edge Off." ABC News. April 22, 2009. http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=7392433
- Carmichael, Mary. "Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?" Newsweek. Feb. 14, 2009. http://www.newsweek.com/id/184154
- HealthDay News. "Across the U.S., stress varies by region." April 14, 2009.http://www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-news-1/Across-the-U-S---Stress-Varies-by-Region-42487-1/
- 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. http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/bne121111.pdf
- Kotz, Deborah. "Relax! Stress, if Managed, Can Be Good For you." U.S. News & World Report. June 5, 2008.http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2008/06/05/relax-stress-if-managed-can-be-good-for-you.html
- Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Stress: Win control over the stress in your life." Sept. 12, 2008. (May 1, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/SR00001
- MedicineNet. "Adrenaline." (May 1, 2009)http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=2155
- Panzarino, Peter J. "Stress." (May 1, 2009)http://www.medicinenet.com/stress/article.htm
- Weaver, Jane. "Can stress actually be good for you?" Dec. 20, 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15818153