Stress is almost always viewed as harmful. However, moderate amounts of stress can be quite beneficial. Stress reactions are intended to assist us in responding to and learning from potentially dangerous situations. Mild, transient stress can enhance memory, alertness, and performance.

Solving problems with the stress responses of our body

Life is not always a smooth ride. Problems arise frequently, and we have to deal with those and solve them. This not only applies to humans, but also goes for all living beings on Earth, from bacteria to insects and all vertebrate classes.

Every creature disposes of physiological mechanisms and strategies to defend themselves, and to protect them from threats and other problems. In bacteria, these are special proteins called heat shock proteins. Vertebrate animals also have heat shock proteins, but their main physiological mechanisms are the neuroendocrine stress responses. These involve activation of the brain (hence: neuro) and endocrine glands that produce stress hormones (hence: endocrine).

The main neuroendocrine stress responses in our bodies are elicited through the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The sympathetic nervous system activates several processes in your body. It increases blood pressure, heart beat frequency, breathing rhythm, tightens arm and leg muscles, and liberates energy from the liver. It does this via the production of the stress hormone adrenaline (or epinephrine in the US), within seconds after a threat arises. The HPA axis stimulates the production of another stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol redistributes energy to those organs that need it to fight off the threat. Together, they elicit the “fight-or-flight” response, preparing you for immediate action.

Stress responses also occur in the brain. They make you more alert, concentrated, and help you to focus on the threat.

The neuroendocrine stress responses are not unique to us. They occur in all vertebrate animals as well (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). They have proven to be effective physiological processes to overcome problems and threats.

The catch with stress

Whereas stress is thus first and foremost something good, stress has a bad reputation. Fight-or-flight responses may serve vertebrate animals and our ancestors on the savannah in Africa well to avoid predators for instance. They are less useful in the office at work or while driving your car. However, the increased focus and attention will still enable you to deal with problems.

The real problem with stress arises when it becomes chronic, a long-term condition of stress. This can arise when you are not able to solve the problem or successfully deal with the threat, although your stress responses have been switched on to come to your rescue. Alternatively, stress can become chronic when several different problems (also known as stressors) follow each other quickly. Think of being bullied at work while you have to meet a tight deadline to satisfy an extremely demanding client. Top this up with financial or relational problems and the picture is complete.

Chronic stress can seriously harm both your physical and mental well-being. According to research, chronic stress raises the chance of heart attack, burnout, panic attacks, digestive problems, migraines, depression, burnout and more.

Stress cannot be avoided. There is stress in everyone's life. Stress is bound to arise at some point, whether it's at work, school, or because of the busy schedule at home. Stress management should therefore not aim to eliminate stress altogether. Chronic stress should be prevented and managed properly. Short-lasting stress, on the other hand, should be embraced. It can have many good effects to deal with problems and threats to your benefit.

Here are nine benefits of good stress:

1. Stress stimulates the birth of new brain cells and improves memory

Scientists have found that brief bursts of stress can enhance brain function. When rats were subjected to a brief stressful condition (they were kept immobile in their cage for a few hours), they increased the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, according to a study published in 2013 in the journal eLife. The hippocampus is an important brain structure for memory. When the rats were given a memory test after the stress, the rodents performed better. Scientists believe that the same happens in the human brain.The new brain cells may be responsible for this enhanced capacity to remember things related to a stressful event. This is useful in case a similar stress arises in the future. Based on your memory and experience, you will know what to do!

Stress may stimulate the synthesis of a special protein in the hippocampus, which is known as BDNF. This protein is also produced during physical exercise. It is likely for this reason that exercise is one of the best remedies to increase stress resilience.

Scientists can make newborn cells visible in the brains of laboratory animals. The birth and development of new cells can be determined by specific chemicals that they produce, giving the different colors in the image. The new cells make you more resilient against stress. Anna Engler, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Stress makes you more alert (arousal)

When we experience stress, we get an increase in arousal, which indicates to us that something important is happening. The arousal helps us focus and drive effort toward addressing the problem if we perceive the situation as challenging but manageable. Consider how challenging it would be to perform or present well if you experienced no arousal at all. Thanks to noradrenaline in the brain, your presentation will go smoothly!

In animals and humans alike, stress makes you alert for upcoming threats. This can make the difference between life and death for these meerkats.

3. Stress gives you focus

Related to this is that stress gives you focus. You will be able to direct all or most of your attention to dealing with the stressor. Stressors like running a marathon, passing an exam, starting a new job, making a presentation, meeting a new friend, taking up a new hobby, getting married, or becoming a new parent are exciting and perhaps stressful events for which you need focus. Stress reactions in the brain will give your the required focus, in which noradrenaline plays an important role. Some people perform better under pressure, because short-term stress enables your brain to focus exclusively on the one task at hand and block out everything else.

Being stressed when presenting helps to concentrate on what you are saying. Usually, stress will disappear shortly after you have started your lecture.

4. Stress gives energy

Short-term stress can increase your energy level. As with focus, this has again to do with arousal. Positive stress, often known as 'eustress,' is a condition that produces a desirable sort of arousal. Situations that test us or are thrilling and invigorating put our minds and bodies under stress, yet the experience need not be painful. Instead, eustress spurs us on, heightens our awareness, and aids in effective problem-solving. In fact, the good, short-term stress increases the production of endorphins in the brain and stimulates the formation of new brain connections. This sort of stress occurs when you are facing difficulties like giving a speech, getting a job promotion, performing on stage, having a baby, or relocating. Consider it a form of physical workout that stresses the body but leaves you feeling energized rather than exhausted.

5. Stress boosts your confidence

When you are facing a tough problem that you may be able to solve, the stress that you will experience may actually help you to succeed. This is because of the increased focus, arousal and energy will draw all your attention and efforts to dealing with the problem. Endorphins and other brain chemicals are released virtually immediately when the stress starts, and put you directly on the way of dealing with the stressor. The rest of your body is on high alert too. For example, the increased heart beat you may experience before giving a presentation is more likely to improve than impair your performance. With the good stress, you will accomplish things that you wouldn’t be able to surmount without stress. Succeeding to overcome difficult problems will give you the confidence that you will be able to deal with similar problems in the future.

Stress helps you to accomplish difficult things, and therefore boosts your self confidence.

6. Stress prepares you to deal with stress better

In line with increased self confidence, successfully dealing with stress makes it easier to reduce additional stress. This is known as “stress inoculation” by psychologists. To develop a solid repertoire of techniques to deal with many types of challenges, it can be good to discover which coping reactions are effective for you in certain circumstances. Managing a difficult situation successfully increases self-efficacy, or the conviction that you have the tools and capacity to accomplish your goals. Our urge to take on harder problems increases when we believe we can be successful. Even when something goes wrong, you can still gain knowledge from the experience. What worked and what didn't, and how could you react differently going forward? We are better positioned to effectively manage problems if we regard stressful situations as a chance to learn rather than a threat of failure.

Life is full of learning experiences. Dealing with stressful events, alone or with the help of others, is also a learning experience. You will know what to do and what not to do the next time a similar stressor presents itself.

7. ​​Stress may improve brain functions in your children

There is good news for expectant mothers who are feeling the regular pressures and anxiety caused by the demands of modern life: According to a study published in 2017 in Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress, short-term stress circumstances don't harm the development of the fetus. No one is advocating that pregnant women should intentionally seek out stress, but it's acceptable to experience some anxiety. Other studies have revealed that those who encounter brief stress in early life, such as a brief separation from their mother, actually have less anxiety and have better brain function later in life. However, longer periods of stress during infancy and youth are still linked to unfavorable outcomes.

Short-term eustress does not harm the foetus. Rather, it may reduce anxiety and improve cognitive processes in the brain later in life. Early life experiences, good and bad, can have effects that are still present in adulthood. However, as an upcoming mother it is still better to avoid stress, as too much stress can have adverse effects on the child. But you don't have to worry about a little stress, and that is good news!

8. Stress prevents you from being ill

In contrast to chronic stress, acute stress can offer some protection against sickness. Stress makes your immune system more effective against invading bacteria and viruses. This has probably evolved as a consequence of the “fight-or-flight” response, especially because of the “fight” part. During fighting, there is a fair chance of getting injured. Pathogens may easily invade the body through open wounds. It is therefore of advantage to have the immune system ready to attack any virus or bacteria as soon as it enters the body. The immune system will upregulate its production of proinflammatory chemicals, whereas the antibody responses remain largely unaltered. Chronic stress, however, has a negative influence on the immune system, so that you are at higher risk of getting sick.

9. Stress increases motivation and reward

The messenger molecule dopamine controls the brain centers involved in motivation and reward. Stress has profound effects on dopamine signaling in the brain. During acute stress, dopamine is required to choose the best strategy to deal with a stressor, and to motivate you to follow it through. Once the stress is over, and you have successfully dealt with the stressor, the enhanced dopamine signaling may prompt you for a small celebration to mark your success.

How about a glass of good wine as a reward? Giving yourself a small treat after having accomplished something is a good habit to satisfy your brain's dopamine system.

Consider stress as something positive

People must develop a wide range of complex social and intellectual abilities throughout the course of their lives and then put those skills to use in order to function adequately in society. Acquiring skills and solving problems can be unpleasant and stressful, but it is a necessary process to become a productive member of society. Additionally, it may seriously disadvantage people if they simply disengage from the difficulties they encountered. In order to prosper in modern life and defeat dangers to their own and the world's survival, people must learn to value and appreciate stressful events.

This requires a change of thinking. Instead of seeing problems as stressful, see them as challenges. This attitude is known as “stress reappraisal” or “stress reframing”. Stress reappraisal does not seek to eliminate or reduce stress, nor does it promote relaxation. Instead, it focuses on a positive attitude. It will allow you to think that you can handle problems in life, no matter how tough they are. In fact, a study analyzing the blood plasma levels of the stress hormone cortisol in students, who were preparing for an exam, were lower in those who considered the exam as a challenge rather than a threat. These students also performed better in the exam.

Stress reappraisal, or stress reframing, is an important mental strategy to help you deal with stressful events better. You will more often than not be able to deal successfully with the stressor, and you will reduce the risk of entering into a state of chronic stress. Reframing stress is therefore an important technique to prevent stress-related health problems that come with chronic stress.

Embracing stress as something good is an efficient mental strategy to deal with it successfully. Thinking of a stressor as a challenge rather than a threat will shift you into the right mindset to cope with stress quickly and to prevent chronic (bad) stress.

Effects of short, good stress and chronic, bad stress

Stress has many good, but also many bad effects on mind and body. If you enjoyed reading about the astonishing beneficial effects of stress, you may also want to consult other articles on the effects of stress, be they good or bad. Here are already 10 articles that describe good and bad effects of stress:

  1. How stress affects the skin
  2. Good stress management will make you successful at work
  3. Guide to posttraumatic stress disorder
  4. Stress leads to bad, risky decisions
  5. Not all is negative: enjoying stress
  6. How stress leads to cardiovascular disease
  7. Stress leads to anxiety
  8. Answered: Why stress leads to gastrointestinal problems
  9. The link between stress and depression: it is all in the brain
  10. Burnout: immense fatigue induced by psychosocial stress