THE BLOG
07/20/2014 01:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2014

How Stress Can Be a Very Good Thing

Feeling stress in your everyday life? Join the crowd. There's no doubt that we face an enormous number of stresses in day-to-day living, whether it be at work, in the home, or anywhere in between. In fact, a recent poll showed that more than one in every four Americans, almost 60 million people, said they experienced a great deal of stress in the previous month alone.

The funny thing, though, is as much as we may believe that the stresses we face are more numerous or severe than in generations past, people have been living extremely stressful lives for thousands of years. Think the hunter-gatherers didn't feel the stress of chasing down wild beasts for survival? That our counterparts from a century ago, struggling through economic depression, didn't consider theirs to be the "Age of Anxiety"?

What you might find suprising is that contrary to popular belief, some stress can actually be a good thing.

What Is Stress, and How Can It Help Us?

Stress, when harnessed properly, can have numerous benefits for the body and mind. But in order to use stress to our advantage, it's important first to understand what exactly causes it and, if everyone tells us to avoid it, how it can actually help us.

When we feel stress, our body is sending us a signal about how the pressures we experience affect us physically and mentally. Much like a caveman running from a wooly mammoth, stress triggers a "fight or flight" response that turns on parts of our nervous system and causes us to make certain hormones. You know the feeling -- heart racing, palms sweaty, eyes wide open, heightened awareness. Ever been in a dangerous situation and all of a sudden felt like you could lift a car or outrun a chasing dog? It's actually your body and mind responding to stress: In the end, we get a turbo boost of speed, strength, and senses that can be an incredible advantage in our everyday lives.

In fact, there actually are a few ways that stress, in moderation, can help us on an everyday basis.

1. Stress Can Sharpen Your Memory
Did you ever notice that sometimes when you are stressed, your memory seems to improve? Remember that big test you aced where the answers seemed to come out of nowhere? That's one way your brain responds to stress, and it's because of stress hormones that increase your alertness when it's most needed. Occasional stress can help keep you focused and improve your recall, which can be a plus when cramming for that test or preparing for an important presentation at work. But just as with anything else, only so much stress can actually help. Too much of it over an extended period of time can make your mind foggy and give you trouble recalling even the most basic of things. Ever wonder how 9-1-1 developed for an emergency? Partly because under severe stress, research showed people could only remember three numbers. Just watch contestants on a game quiz show -- they're not acting when they seem to get a simple answer wrong -- too much stress stops their brain from recalling some facts.

2. Stress Can Help Boost Your Immune System
You need a healthy immune system to help fight off infections and disease, and believe it or not, the right kind of stress can actually help your body's defenses against illness. When you get sick, stress causes you to make hormones that battle threats to your health. And this kind of stress is particularly effective when at the early stages of an illness, when your body needs help the most. Now, it is true your immune system can only handle so much stress: If it lasts too long, these hormones can overwhelm your body and actually decrease your immunity. But that initial burst of stress is an asset when your immune system when you're the most vulnerable: Right when your body faces a threat.

3. Stress Can Help You Get a Leg Up at Work
I know -- you're thinking, "work is what causes my stress!" Well, successful employees turn stress into positive energy and motivation rather than letting it consume them. Ever notice that you get the least amount done on days where you have the fewest deadlines? Too little stress at the workplace can lead to complacency and affect how much you actually get done. When you take risks and choose to attack hurdles at work, it helps your mental toughness and self-confidence. And these are qualities that can increase your marketability and promotion opportunities. Manage the stress and you will get an advantage over colleagues who let stress overwhelm them.

4. Stress Can Make Your Life More Interesting
To this point, we've described stress a survival tool, but what about the stress we feel when we actually choose to take on a challenge? Think about some stressful situations that we consciously put ourselves in to make life more interesting and enjoyable. Challenges like asking someone out on a first date, facing and conquering a known fear, interacting with people you've never met, even learning something completely new. These may not immediately come to mind when you think of stressors -- and maybe that's because of the positive outcomes that come from them -- but they're the types that can help you achieve fulfillment, health, and happiness.

Recognize Your Stressors and Use Them to Your Advantage

Although stress can be a true positive, don't forget that too much of anything is rarely a good thing. It's true that small bursts -- occasional episodes for short periods of time -- can provide great benefits, but it's never a good idea to expose yourself to long-term stress, which is a setup for emotional and physical illness. Instead, recognize the stressors in your life, whether self-chosen or from outside sources, and use the energy that your body produces to your advantage.

So while we may not be the first generation to have faced this amount of stress, we may be the first with the knowledge to turn what has always been considered a negative into a true positive.

References:

NPR RWJ Stress Study // http://media.npr.org/documents/2014/july/npr_rwfj_harvard_stress_poll.pdf