A crazy deadline at work. A grinding traffic jam. The causes of stress range from common frustrations like these to traumatic experiences like going through a divorce, losing your job, or being a victim of violence. Most of us tend to think of all stress as bad, but the stress response has a purpose, too. The tensed muscles, rapid heartbeat, increased respiration, and surge of hormones that occur are all part of what’s called the fight or flight response. Our bodies mobilize instantly to either confront danger or run away from it.
Research suggests that the stress response goes beyond readying the body to fight or flee. A 2014 study in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found that stress alters hormones in the brain, stimulating long-term memories of the experience. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If we encounter a threat, it’s useful to remember the details in order to avoid it in the future. Short-term stressors—an upcoming exam or a looming deadline, for instance—can sharpen attention and boost memory. Research also suggests that short-term stress can boost the level of cells involved in fighting off infections and healing wounds.
The negative side of stress
But while short-term stress may have positive effects, traumatic experiences or stress that drags on can have negative consequences. When researchers at UCLA followed people who lived through the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, they charted a steady drop in markers of immune function. In another study published in 2013 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers compared women experiencing the stress of caring for a spouse with dementia with similar women with healthy spouses. The high-stress group showed significantly higher levels of oxidative damage to cells.
The more traumatic or prolonged the stressful experience, the more likely it is to have negative consequences. How much control you have over the situation also matters. If you feel helpless, your health and well-being are more likely to suffer.
Sometimes you can eliminate stresses directly—leaving a really unpleasant job, for instance. But some stress is an inevitable part of life. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to let off steam.
Find ways to relax. Mindfulness meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, and simply sitting quietly can help counteract the detrimental effects of stress. A 2015 study of nurses undergoing the high-stress transition from school to practice found that mindfulness meditation eased anxiety and lowered scores on widely used stress measures.
Exercise. A 2015 study found that people who started a daily aerobic exercise regimen strenuous enough to leave them winded and sweating reported fewer symptoms of stress, such as anxiety or insomnia.
Bolster your resiliency. Research suggests that resiliency—the ability to handle stress without burning out—can be learned. In a study at Toledo University, medical residents who were taught coping skills to help them manage stress reported fewer overreactions to stresses at work and improved health habits.
Also see The Surprising Benefits of Stress.