Yes, There Is Such A Thing As Good Stress

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Slide4Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
“I really like being stressed out,” said no one. Ever. That’s because stress is typically associated with being the ultimate villain when it comes to your body and your health. However, that may not be entirely true. Sure, you feel mentally and physically ah-mazing when you are chilling on the beach on vacay or just got out of a massage. But research shows that not all stress is created equal and that some (if it’s the right kind) can actually do your body — and your brain — good, according to a study out of the University at Buffalo published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, rats that had pretty much mastered a maze were exposed to a 20 minute forced-swim stress. After that, they went through the maze for a second time. While you’d think the stress of the swim could throw them off from completing the maze a second time around, it had the opposite effect—those rats actually made less mistakes in the maze than those who weren’t subjected to the stressful swim component.

So why is this so interesting in regards to how acute bouts of stress can have a positive impact on how you go about your day, too? Zhen Yan, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University at Buffalo and a senior author on the study, says that isolated, short-term stress (as opposed to excessive and chronic stress) can actually promote you to be more adaptive and focused as well as alert, all of which can enhance your performance and your memory.

But there is a fine line between good and bad stress and how it affects your health. “Repeated stress actually has a negative impact on the body and the brain,” says Yan. Here’s why: the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that dictates most learning and emotions. Here, there are lots of receptors for a neurotransmitter that is specifically responsible for improving your memory (it is called glutamate). So get slightly stressed and glutamate receptors increase, but cross that freaking out line and there’s a loss of glutamate receptors that leads you to lose focus, forget things, and, well, mess up. “With good stress, you tend to feel energized — maybe even excited — in a pleasant, even-keel way (not super-amped, hyper, or agitated),” says Katherine L. Ziegler, PhD, a psychologist in Oakland, California. “You sense your strength and are enjoying the sense of challenge, engaged in what you’re doing.”
Slide5Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Of course, the type and amount of stress that will keep you razor sharp or put you in a tizzy varies from person to person. (Yan says that the same is true for the rats in the study.) And your sex could make a difference, too: “A recent study found that female rats were more resistant to the negative effects of repeated stress than male rats, and in some human studies, females are more resilient to stress, however, that of course depends on the person.” So, sweat the small stuff here and there and when your day goes totally haywire, don’t let it make you do the same. How you ask? Ziegler offers these insta-stress relieving techniques:

Your Breath Can Be Like Natural Xanax
“Put both feet flat on the floor (or mat or bed if you’re lying down). Sense their weight, temperature, pressure on surfaces, and the feel of clothing; as well as your skin, pulse, and muscles. Breathe slowly in through your nose — count to five, letting your lungs fill as deeply as you can — and out through your mouth, pursing your lips slightly to make a soft sound, to a count of seven or longer, pulling your belly button gently in towards your spine. This lets your lungs empty completely, then fill completely with air. Repeat sequence till you yawn and feel very relaxed.”

Try The Swiss Cheese Technique
“If you’re feeling overwhelmed with a task or situation, pick one small portion of it that you can do something about right now. Do it. Then take the next bite-size piece and focus on it. Same goes for worries about the future — ‘One day at a time’ is sage advice. When you find yourself thinking again about the big generalized, unmanageable thing, say to yourself, ‘Thinking’ and return your attention to your next outbreath, saying, ‘Out.’ Do this over and over again until you relax.”

Read When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within
“It’s a great antidote for anxiety as well as anger. Both are highly stressful when chronic, and neither gets you what you really need. (Exception: there’s a clean anger that can give you the oomph to stand up for yourself when needed.) This book shows you how to replace “shoulds” and “blamer” thoughts with strategies that actually work. Easy to read, packed with interesting examples.”

Melt Your Inner Critic
“That negative voice in your head can be a major source of depression, anxiety, and botched relationships, work and personal. The IC is trying its best to help you avoid pain and live well, but its strategies often have the opposite effect. Start by writing down what it says to you (usually some version of “You’re not good enough!” “You’re going out in that?!” “There you go messing up again” or some such).”

Exercise And Get To Know Mother Nature
“Gentle, fun exercise and even a breath of fresh air from a quick walk can do the trick. Research shows that both really do lift your mood and relax you almost immediately.”