How the Lesser Known "Good Stress" Improves Brain Function

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Key Takeaways

  • Low to moderate stress can act as a vaccine against mental health problems and future stress.
  • Some types of stress help with cognitive functioning.
  • Good stress can become bad stress if not handled properly.

Inflation. COVID-19. International wars. Global uncertainty. These are just some of the issues that are creating stress for people worldwide. In fact, almost 70% of adults in the US say they’ve experienced extreme stress since the start of the pandemic. Chronic stress can cause severe physical, mental, and emotional problems. Numerous scientific findings detail the negative impact of stress.

But did you know there are types of stress that can be good for you?

“Eustress is a great thing. Eustress could be starting a new job, having something exciting happening, moving into a new home… It’s a good stress,” explains Felice Martin, MS, NCC, LPC, Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor, NeuroCoach+ NeuroLeader, Behavioral Health Associates of Georgia, LLC.

Good stress may help defend the body against oxidative damage, which impacts aging and disease. It can also improve brain function and even lessen the possibility of mental health conditions, according to a new study published in Psychiatry Research. We look at how good stress can reduce the risk of mental health problems, and how it can protect against future stressful situations.

The Research

Researchers from the University of Georgia studied data from the Human Connectome Project. They culled information from 1,206 young adults who answered a questionnaire that detailed their stress levels, as well as the impact of stress in their lives. Researchers also examined participants’ neurocognitive abilities, including memory, attention, and the ability to switch between tasks.

They were able to draw correlations between stress levels and brain functioning. Low to moderate stress can strengthen a person cognitively, improve resilience, and even serve as a barrier to psychological problems.

Assaf Oshri, PhD

Although stress is often may have some protective benefits for cognitive functioning and mental health that may help us cope with future stress.

— Assaf Oshri, PhD

“Most of the research on stress and adversity is focus on the negative effect it bears on people. Although stress is often harmful, in certain context and in a measured way, it may have some protective benefits for cognitive functioning and mental health that may help us cope with future stress,” explains Assaf Oshri, PhD, Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science at The University of Georgia. Dr. Oshri is the lead author of the study.

While the study is not based on a large group of participants, it provides valuable insight into benefits of the right kind of stress.

“Lower levels of stress are associated with elevated levels of [cognitive] functioning (for example, working memory) whereas high levels of stress start to be harmful … as they are associated with reduced [cognitive] functioning,” Dr Oshri notes.

The study results highlight an important distinction — different types of stress produce very different results on a person’s mental performance and with their mental health.

Good Stress Versus Bad Stress

We all experience stress at some point in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid it, even if it’s positive. Good stress can be something like being nervous before taking an exam or having to prepare for a big presentation at work. That type of stress can increase alertness, lead to better performance, even sharpen memory.

But that beneficial stress can quickly become detrimental, even surrounding the same circumstances. Moving into a new home is a positive, exciting event. But if you are relocating every year, or are being forced to move, those additional factors can create a negative stressful situation.

“If I’m anxious all the time, then of course that’s going to impact me physically. I may start having stomach problems or heart palpitations or sweat, or I may break out in a panic attack. Something good can turn into something stressful,” Martin explains. 

Extensive research has been done on the harmful effects of stress, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, high blood pressure, and difficulty concentrating.

Experiencing good stress, however, may function as protection against some of these effects.

Good Stress Acts as a Vaccine

Experts say that moderate, manageable stress can act in a protective way against future stressors. It can function like a vaccine, equipping the body with the tolerance it needs against more taxing stress in the future.

“Certain types of stress in low to moderate levels can assist individuals to prepare, reorganize, and build up capacity to sustain future stress. It can also motivate us to learn and be vigilant about the future,” Dr. Oshri notes.

Coming through a stressful event successfully can also bolster your confidence when dealing with new stressors. That is a part of the positive impact on brain functioning.

“It helps us to create a narrative or a story within our hippocampus, our memory part, [and] gives us positive feedback,” Martin explains. “It changes our perceptions, it changes the way we see ourselves, [and] it changes the way we see others,” she states.

Succeeding at any type of challenge is just the motivation a person may need to conquer more difficult stress later. It gives the ideal way to look at the right kind of stress in a positive light.

Felice Martin, CPCS

When we deal with stress head on, it makes us feel empowered and it gives that positive dopamine rush...Who doesn’t want to feel that?

— Felice Martin, CPCS

“When we deal with stress head on, it makes us feel empowered and it gives that positive dopamine rush, that positive reward chemical, because we know that, ‘Hey I can do this. Yeah, this is great.’ Who doesn’t want to feel that?" Martin concludes.

What This Means For You

Society tells us that stress is bad, and constantly focuses on the negative impact it has. But as this study shows, certain types of stress can fortify you against stressful situations in the future and help keep mental health challenges at bay. A little of the right kind of stress can do a lot of good for you.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body.

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