Can stress improve your health?

This Saturday is Stress Awareness day, and as most of us know, in daily life, a certain level of stress is almost unavoidable. We've long been told of the negative effects this can have on our health, but recent studies suggest that stress and how a person views it can actually have positive effects body and mind. How you think and how you act when facing stressful situations can transform your experience of it, when you view it as helpful, you can change the way your body reacts, creating a biology of courage and resilience. 

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, explored this research and made some startling discoveries. In a study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participants who reported a high level of stress but perceived it in a positive way had the lowest risk of premature death, lower even than those that reported little to no stress in their lives.

This is because the perception of stress actually changed the way a persons physical body reacted. In those that viewed it as harmful to their health, the blood vessels around the heart would constrict, leading to a higher chance of cardiovascular disease. In those that viewed stress as having either a positive or no adverse effects on their health, the size of their blood vessels did not change. In fact, their hearts seemed to work better and more efficiently. 

Stress also boosts the production of neurons that may improve performance, pushing you to levels of optimum alertness, and cognitive performance. Not only this, but it has been shown to strengthen the immune system as the adrenal glands release hormones that call immune cells to action in the body. 

A 2009 study showed that in situations of stress, the body increases it's levels of the neurotransmitter glutamine, known to improve working memory, so not only do you become more alert, but your memory improves too.

Lastly, it can also make you more social. In times of high pressure, your body releases more Oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, priming you to do things that increase social contact. Not only does this help you to reach out to others for support, it also helps heart cells regenerate and blood cells stay relaxed. 

While these studies show that the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable, it's still important to find balance, and take time for rest and self care. When it all does feel a little too much, don't be afraid to ask for help or support, to take time out or head to your favourite relaxing yoga class.


31 October 2017