Some stress may be good for the brain — but not too much stress.
New research from the Youth Development Institute at the University of Georgia reports that low to moderate levels of stress can help support the development of individuals. Such exposure fosters resilience, the authors explain, and helps reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression or antisocial behavior throughout the individual’s lifetime. It also helps people better deal with stressful encounters in the future.
As such, a certain amount of stress can be beneficial to our development, the authors argue — the trick is not to overdo it. Some examples of these beneficial levels of stress include studying for an exam, preparing for a work meeting, or pulling in some overtime to meet a closing deadline.
“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,” said Assaf Oshri, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
“It’s like when you keep doing something hard and get a little callous on your skin. 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.”
When an aspiring writer gets their draft rejected, they experience quite a bit of stress. Someone who fails a job interview will find themselves in a similar state. But the rejection can lead the writer to rethink their style and improve, or the worker to reconsider their strengths and abilities and whether they want to stay in the field or branch out to a new one.
A ‘good’ level of stress can thus act as a catalyst for our personal development, and make us more resilient to adversity in the future. At the same time, too much stress can leave us feeling exhausted and stretch us thin, draining our inner resources and potentially leaving us more vulnerable to unfortunate circumstances should they arise.
The researchers drew on data from the Human Connectome Project, a nationwide project funded by the National Institutes of Health which aimed to gain data on how the human brain functions. Data from over 1,200 young adults who took part in that project was used in the study. These participants reported their perceived stress levels through the use of a questionnaire that is commonly used to measure the extent to which people perceive their lives as being stressful and uncontrollable.
The questionnaire included questions 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?”
Apart from their answers here, the study also measured each participant’s neurocognitive abilities using tests for attention span and their ability to suppress automatic responses to visual stimuli. They measured their cognitive flexibility, their ability to switch between tasks, their picture sequence memory (the memorization of increasingly-long series of objects), their working memory, and their overall data processing speed. Data pertaining to the levels of anxiety each participant felt (obtained from multiple measurements of self-reported anxiety, attention problems, and aggressive behavior) alongside other behavioral and emotional problems was also factored in.
According to their analysis, the team says that low- to moderate levels of stress was actually beneficial for the participants’ psyches. It seems to act as a sort of buffer of inoculation against mental health symptoms, the team explains.
“Most of us have some adverse experiences that actually make us stronger,” Oshri said. “There are specific experiences that can help you evolve or develop skills that will prepare you for the future.”
That being said, the research also shows that the ability to bear stress and face adversity is also highly dependent on the individual. Factors such as age, genetic predispositions to certain mental health issues, and having a support network to fall back on in times of need all shape how well individuals can handle the challenges life throws at them, and the stress these produce.
Furthermore, while a little bit of stress can be good for our brains, sustained, high levels of stress are incredibly damaging both mentally and physically.
“At a certain point, stress becomes toxic,” Oshri explains. “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 findings cast a new light on the issue of stress, which is generally perceived as a universally bad element in one’s life. It shows that certain levels of stress can in fact help keep us healthy, engaged, and growing. The findings, however, also reinforce what we have all observed in our lives: too much stress is very bad for us. The issue, as always, is that the dosage makes the poison.
The paper “Is perceived stress linked to enhanced cognitive functioning and reduced risk for psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis” has been published in the newspaper Psychiatry Research.