By Jillian Kramer. Photos: Courtesy of CNP Montrose.
We’ve come to think of stress as a no good, very bad thing. But while large amounts of stress are, in fact, no good and very bad, recent research shows that stress in small doses—like the kind you might feel right before a big presentation or as you struggle to meet a fast-approaching work deadline—is actually pretty good for you.
How so?, you might be wondering. Well, researchers at UC Berkeley wanted to understand how we could take something uncomfortable and potentially threatening—like stress—and turn it into a good thing. They studied the effects of stress on lab rats and looked specifically at the growth of stem cells in the rats' hippocampus—the part of the brain involved in stress response, as well as learning and memory.
When the furry creatures were exposed to moderate stress over short periods of time—for example, when they were immobilized for a few hours—they experienced stem cell growth. When they were reexamined weeks later, the researchers saw the rats had improved memory and learning function. However, when the rats were exposed to long periods of stress, their stem cells didn’t grow, making fewer brain cells.
The researchers believe people respond the same way to stress: In short or small doses, stress may encourage the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, which in turn improves our memory and learning capacity. “Our research shows that moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory,” says Daniela Kaufer, lead researcher and associate professor at UC Berkeley.
Of course, just like those rats, too much stress in humans can cause big problems, including anything from headaches to overeating and even depression. And what’s “too much” is different for everyone, the researchers postulate. “The same stressor may be manageable for one person and overwhelming for another, depending in part on perception,” Kaufer explains. Plus, if we can control some part of the situation we feel is stressful rather than be completely out of control, even large stressors can be more manageable, they say, and not cause as much harm.
The lesson, then, is this: Don’t automatically get stressed anytime you feel stress. A little bit at work may actually improve your overall performance and ability to adapt and learn on the job. And if stress does get overwhelming, be sure to find positive ways to cope, by either maintaining a positive attitude or regaining some control to mitigate its negative effects.
This story originally appeared on Glamour.
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