Why stress can be good for you

Four things we learned from The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s illuminating how-to book on embracing stress.

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hand squeezing stress ball
Illustration, Sarah Lazarovic.

1. Modern stress research is largely based on old rat studies.
In 1936, Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist, performed a series of injections on rats. No matter what he injected them with, the rats showed increased rates of illness and death — an effect Selye called “stress.” By the 1970s, Selye had adjusted his theory to distinguish between eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress), but the idea that stress is uniformly bad for us was already ingrained.

2. Stress hormones can improve physical and mental health.
When our minds experience stress, our bodies produce oxytocin — also known as the love hormone — which increases confidence, encourages us to bond with others and repairs damage to heart cells. The mental health benefits of oxytocin even extend to people who have experienced major life stresses, such as the death of a loved one — a phenomenon psychologists call post-traumatic growth.

3. Helping others can protect you from negative stress.The Upside of Stress book cover by Dr. Kelly McGonigal
There are actually two patterns of stress reaction: fight-or-flight and tend-and-befriend. While fight-or-flight allows us to defend ourselves, tend-and-befriend reactions encourage us to protect our loved ones and communities (this is why, in life-threatening situations, people often think about family members). Harnessing the power of tend-and-befriend by helping others during times of stress (ours or theirs) has a powerful positive effect, diminishing feelings of frustration, anger and sadness, and increasing resilience and hope.

4. To change how you cope with stress, change how you think.
Do you see stress as a challenge or a threat? McGonigal says these set attitudes influence both behaviour and biochemistry. Researchers in one study found that after watching a video explaining that stress is beneficial, participants undergoing a stressful mock job interview had higher levels of DHEA, a neurosteroid that may improve focus and problem-solving skills.