Can stress be good for us?
Stress can sometimes feel productive, like when you’re worried about an assignment so you work hard on it to make sure you do a great job. However, stress can also feel completely overwhelming and bad for our mental health. So is it good or bad for us?
Benefits of Low Stress
A new study shows that low to moderate stress may actually be beneficial for cognitive function. Participants with low to average stress levels showed improved working memory. (Working memory refers to short-term memory used for everyday tasks, like remembering a phone number you just heard.)
The study also showed that low levels of stress made participants more resilient. It can make us better prepared for future stressful situations. Experiencing some low levels of stress also reduces the risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression.
Disadvantages of High Stress
However, once stress levels reach higher than moderate, the stress is no longer helpful to cognitive functioning. A high, consistent level of stress can actually change our brain structure for the worse. High stress actually leads to a decrease in grey matter, which relates to abilities such as muscle control, decision-making, and emotional regulation.
High-stress levels over time can also lead to both physical and mental illness, including conditions such as anxiety, migraines, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
The study also looked at participants’ support networks. Researchers asked participants how supported they felt in their daily lives and whether they felt that their lives mattered. Those will a positive outlook on their lives and a higher level of support from family and friends experienced less stress in general.
The lead author of the study, Assaf Oshri, noted “You need to have the right resources to be strengthened by adversity and stress. For some people, being exposed to adversity is a good thing. But for others, maybe not. It’s possible that you can sustain more stress if you have a supportive community or family.”
All of us need our basic needs met. We all need to feel like we can get through our day-to-day lives without too much stress. If you are in that situation and generally aren’t experiencing much stress, adding a low level of stress, such as taking a class or taking on new responsibilities at work, may actually improve your working memory and have positive effects on your mental health. But if you aren’t in a good place to take on that kind of stress, that’s okay! Do what you can to get to a lower level of stress before trying to take on more.