ATHENS, Ga. — The weight of too much stress catches up with almost everyone at some point. However, new research finds a little bit of stress isn’t all bad. Scientists at the University of Georgia report low to moderate stress levels may strengthen brain function and build mental resilience, lowering the risk of mental health disorders like depression and antisocial behavior.
Researchers add that low levels of stress today can also help people cope with future stressful events tomorrow.
“If you’re in an environment where you have some level of stress, you may develop coping mechanisms that will allow you to become a more efficient and effective worker and organize yourself in a way that will help you perform,” says lead study author Assaf Oshri, an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, in a university release.
As far as more specific, real-world examples, study authors explain that the type of stress that comes with preparing for a big work meeting or studying for an important exam can potentially push someone towards personal growth.
Other examples include a young writer facing rejection from a publisher. This may cause them to rethink their entire writing style. Similarly, losing a job can ultimately turn out to be a positive if it leads someone to reconsider their strengths and whether they should stay in their career field or try something new.
Despite these positives, the research team notes that the line separating the right amount of stress and too much stress is an incredibly thin one.
“It’s like when you keep doing something hard and get a little callous on your skin,” Oshri adds. “You trigger your skin to adapt to this pressure you are applying to it. But if you do too much, you’re going to cut your skin.”
Stress can ‘prepare you for the future’
The data used for this project was provided by the Human Connectome Project, a national project funded by the National Institutes of Health focusing on human brain functions. Study authors analyzed a dataset pertaining to over 1,200 young adults. Each of those participants reported on their perceived stress levels in a questionnaire, which researchers often use to gauge how uncontrollable and stressful people find their lives.
The group answered questions about how often they experienced various thoughts or feelings, such as: “in the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?” or “in the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?”
Next, the team assessed participants’ neurocognitive skills through a series of tests measuring attention, ability to suppress automatic responses to visual stimuli, cognitive flexibility (switching between mental tasks), working memory, processing speed, and sequence memory (remembering an increasingly long series of objects).
Researchers then compared the results of all those tests with each person’s answers from multiple measures of anxious feelings, attention problems and aggression, and various additional behavioral, and emotional problems.
Ultimately the analysis found low to moderate levels of stress can be psychologically beneficial, potentially lowering one’s risk of developing mental health symptoms.
“Most of us have some adverse experiences that actually make us stronger,” Prof. Oshri comments. “There are specific experiences that can help you evolve or develop skills that will prepare you for the future.”
Your results may vary
Study authors caution that an individual’s capacity to tolerate stress and adversity varies quite a bit from person to person. Factors such as age, genetic predispositions, and having a supportive community to fall back on during hard times all contribute to how people react to and handle challenges and unexpected events. Moreover, high stress levels are almost always going to detrimental to one’s health, both physically and mentally.
“At a certain point, stress becomes toxic,” Prof. Oshri concludes. “Chronic stress, like the stress that comes from living in abject poverty or being abused, can have very bad health and psychological consequences. It affects everything from your immune system, to emotional regulation, to brain functioning. Not all stress is good stress.”
The study is published in the journal Psychiatry Research.