Last month we started a review of recent research that suggests that stress has some positive benefits. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist, is researching this topic for a new book she is writing. McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. Among the studies discussed last month were the U of Wisconsin study of 29,000 respondents and a larger epidemiological study of nearly 186 million. In general people who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.
In a prospective study, Dr. Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed 850 people (34 to 93) living in Detroit, asking about major stressful events in the last year and how much time they spent in the last year actively helping others. Obituaries and death records were then tracked over the next 5 years. Dr. Poulin’s team found that every major stress event increased an individual’s risk of death by 30%. But high rates of helping others reduced the stress-induced mortality risk. So, the authors concluded that helping others is a possible antidote to the negative effects of stress.
Looking more directly at how stress can be positive, a 2013 study out of UC Berkeley showed that moderate stress can lead to cell growth in a rat’s brain learning centers. Adult rats were stressed by being immobilized in a small space for 3 hours. Two weeks later, the rats were given a fear-conditioning test. The immobilized rats showed an increased level of stress hormone corticosterone (rate equivalent to cortisol in humans) as well as an increased growth of neural stem cells in the hippocampus.
To put the information into better context: these studies do not really prove that stress is positive. They do show the benefits of doing things to manage one’s stress, such as helping others and how that can lead to positive benefits that can counter the negative effects of a major stressful life event. Some of the studies, such as the 2013 UC Berkeley study, are defining “stress” slightly differently from the host of studies that relate the health dangers of stress. The big difference is those studies that associate stress with health risk are looking at chronically high levels of stress not a 2 or 3 hour learning session, which is considered mildly stressful because any thinking increases cortisol. But, since we cannot go around all the time without thinking, it seems best to think of mild stress as a positive and chronic stress as harmful as what you need to manage by balancing it with relaxation, exercise, sleep, meditation, and many good works for others.
by Susan Andrews, PhD
The Psychology Times, September 2015
Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).