A tight deadline at work. A tough exam at school. A big vacation that requires tons of planning. A home repair that's gone awry.
These sources of stress are anything but pleasant, but a new study suggests that they might actually be good for your mental health in the long run.
Low to moderate amounts of daily stress can prepare the mind to deal with tougher and more chaotic times, much as a vaccine protects a person against future infection, said lead researcher Assaf Oshri. He is an associate professor with the University of Georgia's College of Family and Consumer Sciences, in Athens.
“Some low to moderate level of perceived stress is associated with increased cognitive functioning or better cognitive functioning, and this cognitive functioning was associated with significantly less emotional problems and antisocial behavior problems,” Oshri said.
For this study, Oshri and his colleagues analyzed data from more than 1,200 young adults by the Human Connectome Project, a project funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health intended to provide insight into how the human brain functions.
The young adults reported their perceived stress levels, and also took tests designed to assess their brain function.
The researchers then compared those findings with participants' answers to questions about their anxiety, attention, aggression, and other behavioral and emotional problems.
The investigators discovered there's a U-shaped curve when it comes to stress, where low and even moderate levels appear to be psychologically beneficial.
“Your body, your brain, your psychology, your neurological system, it's adapting to the stress, right? You're exposed to some level of stress, and that creates or initiates some preparing mechanism, if you wish, some reorganization that will prepare you for future encounters with stress,” Oshri said.
Essentially, daily stressors can help a person become more organized and efficient, and have a plan going forward, Oshri said.
Oshri gave the example of a power outage, which stresses you out but also prompts you to buy batteries and water as preparation for a future outage.
The ability to tolerate stress and adversity varies greatly from person to person, the study authors noted. Factors like age, genetics and the support system around a person all play a part in how well an individual handles challenges.
And past a certain point on the U-shaped curve, stress turns toxic and is no longer beneficial to a person's mental state, the study also showed.
“Everybody has some level of stress. It can be zero, one, but if it's 10, if it's very severe and uncontrollable, it becomes toxic,” Oshri said. “It's not helping you to organize for the future. It starts to hurt you.”
Signs that you are dealing with toxic stress levels might include sleeplessness or functioning poorly at work or home, Oshri said.
Such levels of toxic stress generally come from chronic situations like abject poverty or ongoing abuse, said Lynn Bufka, associate chief of practice transformation with the American Psychological Association (APA).
“We might have some capacity to tolerate or roll with newly difficult situations, but things like being abused or living in chronic poverty, those aren't things that we can just sort of fix by dealing with stress,” Bufka said. “We can develop some strategies or some ability to roll with adversity, but there's just some adversity in which the environment has to change in order for it to be OK for the individual.”
The findings from the new study are “very consistent with what we've been talking about at the APA for some time, that not all stress is bad and knowing how to respond to stress is important,” Bufka said.
“Stress motivates us to do things like study for an exam, or we may feel stressed about a really exciting pending event, like planning for a trip or getting married. So it's not like stress in of itself is inherently terrible, but an overwhelming amount of stress or chronic stress is really where it becomes problematic," she explained.
“And it's important for humans to develop strategies for dealing with stress, because we're not going to avoid stress throughout our lives. We're going to have stress, and having ways to cope with it and deal with it that are effective for us is really important,” Bufka said.
Oshri's next step in his research will involve brain scans of participants, so scientists can tell what is going on inside the brain that causes stress to be protective in some instances.
The new study was published in the August issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.
The American Psychological Association has more about stress relief.
SOURCES: Assaf Oshri, PhD, associate professor, University of Georgia's College of Family and Consumer Sciences, Athens, Ga.; Lynn Bufka, PhD, associate chief, practice transformation, American Psychological Association; Psychiatry Research, August 2022