Stress gets an awful lot of bad press, and not without good reason: As many as 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related maladies, and it’s been linked to health issues like high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis. Although it’s talked about much less, not all of the effects of this perfectly natural biological phenomenon are catastrophically bad for you. “There is amazing research we rarely hear about that finds that stress can actually improve our immune systems, speed up cognitive processing, and deepen our social bonds,” says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, a scientific group that conducts social studies on happiness and wellbeing. Yeah, it sucks feeling strung out, but at least there are a few pluses. Here are six ways in which stress might actually boost your health.
IT BUILDS BRAIN CELLS.
Whoa, stress can make you smarter? Apparently so. In a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, researchers trapped rats in their cages for a few hours to mimic temporary, but acute, stress. This confinement doubled the proliferation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, and the stressed critters performed better on a memory test two weeks later. “Immediately after stress, we make more newborn neurons, and when they mature, they participate in a learning experience that makes us learn better,” says study author Daniela Kaufer, Ph.D, who is also an associate professor of integrative biology.
IT BUILDS DEEPER CONNECTIONS.
Just ask any guy who’s ever been through military boot camp, and he’ll tell you this: Those strenuous times also yielded many of his lifelong buddies and fondest memories. How can something so obviously stressful leave such a favorable impression? “You develop the deepest social bonds when you feel stress,” says Achor. Other research bears that out too: Scientists from the University of Freiburg in Germany found that acute stress may lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior among men—rather than the more expected agro-hostility—because of our profoundly human need for social connections.
IT MAKES YOU A BETTER WORKER.
Let’s face it: Work stress is inevitable. But how you perceive that stress could help you use it to your advantage. In a new study in the Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences, 380 employees were split into three groups. One watched videos showing how stress can be beneficial, a second on how it can be debilitating, and the third didn’t watch anything. The stress-is-a-bonus group had fewer physical problems and a significant uptick in productivity when evaluated later on. “If you see stress as bad, then you’ll have negative health effects from it,” says study author Achor. “But if you see it as something that is inevitable and beneficial, you’ll have fewer fatigue-related symptoms, headaches, and backaches.”
IT BOOSTS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM.
The stress-immune system connection is partly evolutionary, and we’ve known it for a while, as illustrated by this National Health Institute study released nearly a decade ago. “If you think about it, if you are a gazelle and you are running from a cheetah, that’s exactly when you want your body to perform and heal the fastest,” says Achor. Vaccines work on a similar principle. “Vaccines stress your system, and in the midst of that, you develop antibodies to make you stronger in the future.” But be aware that there is a tipping point: while short bursts of stress can be good, chronic, unrelenting stress can compromise your immune system in the long haul, making you get sick easier.
IT SPEEDS UP YOUR ABILITY TO THINK.
Experts say that if you put someone in a stressful situation, the speed at which their brain processes information increases. Stress is “a signal to the prefrontal cortex that this situation is something worthy of paying attention to,” says Alvaro Fernandez, author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness. So basically, if you want your brain working sharp, you need a few stressors—or tight deadlines—to help you do it.
IT ENHANCES SPORTS PERFORMANCE.
The human body is designed to optimize function under acute stress — think running away from a saber-toothed tiger, for example — which is why we up our game when the competition is most stiff. “It’s a great example of how the body responds to challenges in our world,” says Achor. “If you are playing basketball in a high stakes game in a playoff, the brain is working at its optimal level. You’re more alert and better focused, plus the fight-or-flight response may also boost your strength and stamina.”