What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: How moderate levels of stress can be good for you

Eustress is a manageable amount of stress that motivates you to do your best work.

Myupchar February 25, 2020 18:25:34 IST
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What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: How moderate levels of stress can be good for you

Ever wondered why most of us can study more in the days before an exam than in the weeks leading up to it? Or how we do more meaningful work when the deadline is upon us than in the days leading up to the deadline?

The answer, ironically, is a variation of stress known as eustress. Eustress is a manageable amount of stress that motivates you to do your best work.

What doesnt kill you makes you stronger How moderate levels of stress can be good for you

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

How is this different from stress, which has many negative health outcomes? In degree and outcome! Read on to know more.

Stress versus eustress

We all know that stress can overrun our lives and render us helpless. The effects can be debilitating: in the short term, there are knots in the stomach, lumps in the throat, your limbs feel like they are weighed down, and a feeling of dread fills you. Your heart rate can also be erratic when you are stressed.

If the stress is chronic, it can lead to a host of diseases from high blood pressure to heart disease. High levels of stress over a long period can even cause changes in your personality and speed up the process of ageing.

This sounds bad, but people rarely look at the brighter side: moderate amounts of stress, such as deadlines, job applications, or situations that require you to push yourself can have a positive impact on you. This is eustress or beneficial stress.

Studies have shown that exposure to manageable amounts of stress is key to personal growth; there are increases in memory and learning. People who experience adverse events and can come out of them are also more resilient. The key here is that the level of stress is manageable.

Eustress has another huge advantage: difficult situations and problems - within manageable limits - help build social connections and community. Ever noticed how coworkers become closer when they are working on a particularly difficult problem, or with a difficult boss? This is eustress at play.

And the stronger your social network is the better your overall health. A recent study, published in the journal Stress & Health, looked at the ability of stress to drive people to seek as well as lend emotional support and build stronger connections.

Emotional support

Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University, US, recruited over 1,600 participants to fill out a survey every night for eight nights. The survey gauged the levels of stress the participants experienced during the day as well as the level of emotional support they sought and gave. The main stressors for the participants included tight deadlines, arguments with co-workers, relationships with difficult managers and personal problems. Emotional support included listening, consoling and giving time to those going through a difficult phase. 

The study showed that people who had experienced higher levels of stress during the day were twice as likely to offer and receive support from their social circle. Those who had experienced more stress the day before were 26% more likely to offer consolation to someone the next day as well, suggesting that the effects are carried over.

The researchers reasoned that stressful situations drive people to discuss their problems more openly, as this helps them to defuse some of their concerns. This openness creates an opportunity for people to bond over their worries and forge more meaningful bonds. This is the premise of support groups as well; people struggling with similar issues come together to unpack and understand their situations better, to turn them into learning opportunities.

Mental toughness

Studies in rats have shown that those that were exposed to a moderate amount of stress saw a spike in stem cells in the hypothalamus in the brain. These spikes were later linked to improvements in learning and memory.

According to the theory of "mental toughness", moderate amounts of stress acts like a vaccine that prepares the body for challenging times and tasks. Those who experience some sort of adversity are better suited to handle stress in the future and exhibit higher levels of overall satisfaction. 

In general, those who adopt a more positive approach to stress and those who are confident that they can overcome situations are best equipped to handle stress and use it as a strength. 

What this study suggests is that not all stress is bad. Some stressors make us push ourselves and work harder: these stressors have a positive impact on our personal growth and well-being. On the other hand, stress that gets the better of us and is not manageable needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

For more information, read our article on Stress.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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