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How stress can actually be good for your brain (really)

Life feels more stressful than ever—but there could be something positive to takeaway.

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 Dan Murray-Serter
Dan Murray-Serter
September 18, 2019
5 min read

Looming deadlines, incessant emails and endless social media comparisons spurring you to try harder, achieve more, do more—just your average Tuesday, right? But, in spite of all this, in some cases stress can actually be good for you, (and your brain).

We’re all operating at this high level of stress on a daily basis, and it’s a problem. So much so, that the World Health Organisation has recently declared burnout an “occupational phenomenon.”

The culprit? Chronic stress. 

But, is that really the cause, or is it just how we react to it? Top scientists, like Stanford’s Dr Kelly McGonigal show us that, when handled in the right way—some stress can actually be good for the brain. Here’s how. 

Wait, stress can be good for you? 

It’s widely acknowledged that stress is a Bad Thing that should be avoided as much as possible. But, according to Dr Kelly McGonigal in a recent episode of the Braincare podcast, in reality:

Stress is a readiness to respond to life in a moment that matters. To help you reach your goals. To protect or defend the people and the things you care about. To learn, and adapt, and grow. If we can recognise that the stress is bigger than us… your body and brain releases hormones to encourage you to reach out and connect with others.

So, it’s not the stress really—it’s all in your reaction? 

Exactly. Put simply, stress is your body’s natural response when something you care about is at stake. And yes, it can make you feel overwhelmed and tense and cause myriad complications with your physical and mental health, but studies have found that a change in your mindset towards stress can help you to alter your mental, emotional and physiological responses to it. 

So, in understanding that your body’s stress responses are actually designed to help you in life, not hinder you—you’ll see that stress can actually be good for you, and your brain.

3 ways that stress can have a positive impact

1. It catches your attention

Stress can help you focus on things that really matter to you. In moments of stress, ask yourself who/what do I care about. And if you’re having a stress reaction to something that you decide you don’t care about, it becomes much simpler to reduce that reaction.

2. It gives you energy

Sometimes that energy can feel good, and sometimes it can feel chaotic and disruptive, but it’s all the same energy, coming from the adrenaline and cortisol your body is releasing. Ask yourself, what do I want to put this energy towards?

3. It helps you connect with others

When we recognise that stress doesn’t have to be tackled alone, we can ask ourselves: where is support available to me? Stress can strengthen relationships, and activate the human capacity we have to grow closer through cooperation and mutual support.

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How stress increases neuroplasticity

One of the best ways to harness stress is to use it as an opportunity to learn from experience. Developmental psychologists have studied the biochemistry of the stress response—all the hormones and chemicals your brain releases—and while there are many different behaviours in response to a stressor, they all lead to increased neuroplasticity. Your brain is getting ready to learn from this experience and use it in the future. 

We can even play a role in choosing how we want to learn from a stress response. Ask yourself, if I can’t control the situation, where am I going to choose to put my attention? In actively choosing to prioritise something in a moment of stress, you are strengthening that habit. Biochemically speaking, this is the best moment to train your brain. It’s literally on neurosteroids.

3 ways to take full advantage of stress

1. Press reset

Next time you notice telltale stress signals like a faster heartbeat or a churning stomach, remind yourself that this is because something matters to you, and that the way you are feeling is a sign that your body is rising to the challenge.

2. Choose the right response

Knowing the different types of stress response is a useful tool to help you pick the right one for the job. Do you need to fight, freeze, face the challenge head-on or be brave and ask for help? It could even be as simple as changing your breathing.

3. Show your appreciation

Be grateful for the people around you that contribute to your life in a positive way, and mean that you are able to take on the things that matter. Doing this regularly fosters your need to connect, help others and seek out people who might help you. For seven easy ways to get started, check out our appreciation guide.

Listen to the full episode of Dr Kelly McGonigal on the Braincare podcast, and for more ideas on how to handle stress, read Dr Rangan Chatterjee's easy tips.

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