5 Ways Stress May Help Your Body

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Stress has been blamed for everything from nosebleeds to heart disease. But research also indicates that stress, at least when properly channeled and controlled, can help you bounce back faster from surgeries, help your body ward off infections, and make you a more productive worker. In fact, too little stress has actually been linked to a number of undesirable traits, including psychopathic tendencies and excessive risk-taking. The trick is finding the right balance between what has been termed positive and negative stress.
Stress in moderate amounts may be beneficial.

© Sanjay Deva/Dreamstime.com

5. Stress Could Aid in Fighting Infections

Researchers at Ohio State University have found that some stress can boost the immune system, as long as the stress is acute and not chronic, unrelenting stress, which really has no benefits for anybody. According to their findings, short-term stress actually kicked immune cells into action in potential sites of infection throughout the body — effectively staving off infection and other illnesses before they even took root. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear stress has the same impact on pre-existing conditions, such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis. Even more troubling, the study’s lead author contends that elevated levels of these “fighter” cells in certain areas could actually increase inflammation from preexisting conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.


4. Stress May Boost Health in Post-Traumatic Situations

Even stress at its most extreme represents a promising area of research, defined in part by “Post-Traumatic Growth.” The American Journal of Psychiatry has explored such research, noting the positive impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder, including: heightened self-perception, improved interpersonal relationships, greater spiritual development and resilience. To that end, even those of us who haven’t had the misfortune of suffering from PTSD can benefit from “moderate stress,” in that researchers note it makes us more resilient to handle bigger responsibilities or trauma that we might encounter later. It’s helpful to remember what stress really is: The body’s reaction to threats. Remember the “fight-or-flight response”? Stress is designed to help us survive. We’ve all heard those stories about mothers who get an adrenaline rush and display seemingly superhuman strength, lifting cars off their children or performing other extraordinary feats. As such, researchers contend that many of us might operate best when under stress, and our body is programmed in such a way that our “engines” naturally speed up when under stressful situations, better preparing us for, or even inoculating us from, greater stresses in the future.


3. Stress May Speed Surgical Recovery

A King’s College London study found that patients with “moderate anxiety” did better after surgery than their counterparts with low stress. However, high stress also seemed to have a negative impact. Going back to that notion of fight or flight, researchers believe that so-called positive stress can better prepare the body for threats, like those brought on by surgery. The problem with stress, they contend, is when it’s not directed toward a rational or real threat, but instead a “perceived” threat. That’s when unnecessary worry emerges, contributing to debilitating conditions such as agoraphobia. In the case of surgical procedures, there is a genuine assault to the body, so the physiological changes brought on by the stress response, such as an increased heart rate, can be beneficial. This notion ties in with the aforementioned research at Ohio State University about how stress mobilizes immune cells into action; in fact, researchers there are exploring how to best harness this immune response — not just during surgeries, but for vaccinations and as a means of fighting infections.


2. Stress Could Result in Greater Employee Productivity

Much has been made about the “S” word’s negative impacts on the workplace, in everything from low employee morale to incidents of workplace violence. But studies have also credited certain types of stress with creating a more efficient and effective workforce. Stress can be a motivator for employees, as long as they see that the pressure has a positive end — such as a specific goal or a reward that makes performing such stressful tasks worthwhile. If, however, the source of the stress is perceived by the employee as “negative,” such as unreasonable expectations, discrimination, poor working conditions, etc., then stress has the opposite impact, actually diminishing morale and productivity. But mild-to-moderate pressure enables workers to be better prepared for more stressful situations later on.


1. Stress Has Been Tied to Creative Genius

Many studies have explored the concept of the “mad genius,” pointing to the abundance of creative and artistic geniuses throughout history that have co-existed with inner turmoil brought on by depression and other mental illnesses (Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe, to name just a couple). However, research also suggests that even more serious cases of anxiety, when channeled properly, can have a positive impact on intellect and other creative and scientific pursuits. Researchers point to Charles Darwin, noting that, while the English-born naturalist was miserable throughout his entire life, he was able to take that obsessive worry and channel it positively, writing the Origin of Species. Even many individuals who place seemingly unnecessary stress on themselves tend to be highly creative, visionary and inventive, even if they’re not likely to be the frontline commanders who must be at their best and think on their feet in life-or-death situations. Worry-wracked geniuses like Darwin may also have been helped along by stress in other ways; some types of stress have actually been found to boost the brain’s ability to learn and remember, as it strengthens the connections between nerve cells.

Finally, while we rarely hear about the negative impact of a “low-stress” lifestyle, research supports the theory that absence of worry is one of the common threads between psychopathic individuals. After all, psychopaths have been shown to lack worry (or genuine care) outside of themselves, devoid of empathy or emotional intelligence.


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Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.