Life is stressful for many of us. But did you know that there are times when stress can actually be good for you?
Believe it or not, not all stress is stressful, so to speak. Eustress is a type of stress that feels more like excitement or anticipation. Instead of causing your body and mind to go into fight-or-flight mode, eustress actually motivates you and helps you get what you want! The truth is that we need stress. Boredom can be just as dangerous for our health as burnout, but the trick is to keep stress in the “eustress zone.” Remember this in these five scenarios!
1. When You’re Nervous
You can probably relate to the sweaty palms, fast heartbeat and butterflies in your stomach many of us feel when we speak in public. Studies show that people fear public speaking even more than death. However, the physical symptoms we feel when we’re anxious are almost identical to those we feel when we’re excited. In fact, according to scientists, the simple act of saying “I’m excited” instead of “I’m nervous/afraid” when you’re facing a challenge (such as public speaking) switches your brain into what’s called “approach mode.” This mindset increases dopamine activity and provides extra mental sharpness and focus that can actually increase confidence and improve your performance. Cool, right?
2. When You Want to Find Your Flow
Another benefit scientists have found of eustress is that it can motivate you to excel at whatever you’re doing. The right amount of stress can help you enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state.” This is a heightened state of productivity in an activity like work, sports or creative endeavors. To achieve a flow state, the activity can’t be too easy or it won’t capture your full focus. But it also can’t be so difficult that you become overly frustrated. The key to flow is having skills that are perfectly matched for the task at hand and feeling challenged just enough to keep you motivated to succeed. This distinction can mean the difference between distress and eustress.
3. When You Need to Increase Your Immunity
We’ve all heard that stress is bad for our health, and that is certainly true in the long term. But researchers at Stanford University believe short-term stress may stimulate the immune system, actually leading to a quick boost in immunity. Although the Stanford study was based on rats, not humans, the results are promising for those of us who face short bursts of stress in life. The study showed that mild stress caused a massive mobilization of immune cells — the ones responsible for fighting infection and healing wounds — into the blood stream. Hormones released by the adrenal glands in response to the stress-inducing event appear to be responsible for this rallying of the immune troops.
4. When You Want to Boost Your Brainpower
High levels of stress can impede our ability to do our best thinking, but researchers suggest that low-level stress can strengthen the neural connections in the brain. A study on rats found that low-level stressors stimulate neurotrophins, brain chemicals that promote the survival, development and function of neurons (brain cells). The study also suggests that short-term stress can help push the brain to reach its optimum potential. During the study, the rats’ response to stress led to a temporary boost in memory and learning scores. This may be similar to the mechanism at work when a short burst of exercise (a form of physical stress) leads to a boost in the brain’s executive function and focus.
5. When You’re Building Resilience
Chronic stress affects our cells, promoting oxidative damage to DNA and RNA. This leads to faster aging and progression of disease (no thanks). But studies show that moderate levels of perceived daily stress actually protect against oxidative damage through what researchers call “psychobiological resilience.” A longitudinal study at UCLA followed a national sample of subjects for several years, assessing how much stress and adversity they had experienced in their lives. The results were surprising: People who had experienced some lifetime adversity reported better mental health and well-being than both people with a history of high adversity and people with no history of adversity.
Embrace the Stress!
These results suggest that moderate stress gives us life skills like adaptability and the confidence to cope in the face of difficulties. In other words, getting into the habit of mentally reframing the difficult moments in your life into opportunities to learn and grow can help you deal with the stressful situations that come your way in the future.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you notice what triggers your stress response? Have you ever experienced nonstressful stress? If so, what got you there? Share your experiences in the comments!