Can Stress Be a Good Thing?

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It’s an accepted fact that stress is bad for you. But don’t drown in all the hype. In some cases, a little bit of stress can be good for your brain.

Stress May Not Make You Sick

A study of a whopping 29,000 people found that stress isn’t really taking years off your life. Rather, the belief that stress is bad is the problem. Stress, they discovered, doesn’t kill you—your viewpoint does. The study found that people who believed stress is bad had a 43 percent increased risk of death. People who did not believe stress was bad were far less likely to die. So stress may not be making you sick. How you deal with it is.

Stress Helps You Learn

A 2013 study found that a boost of corticosterone (a stress hormone) may help neural stem cells grow in the hippocampus, the brain’s learning center. The team discovered that stressful events could improve the mental performance of rats. From a survival standpoint, that makes sense. In the animal world, remembering a stressful event can help a critter avoid similar, life-threatening events in the future.

Stress Saves Your DNA and RNA

A little dose of stress tells your body to dial up antioxidants to fight free radicals, those pesky molecules that make us age. Ends up, with all that help, acute stress can help reduce damage to your body’s DNA and RNA. (Chronic stress, though, does the opposite. So don’t stress too much.)

Stress Boosts Your Immune System

Although chronic stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, an acute “fight or flight” stress attack can stimulate your immune system, making it more responsive. (Your body’s stress response, after all, is there to save you—not make you sick.) One study on rats found that moderate stress makes immune cells more aggressive.

Stress Can Be Alleviated With Charity

Of course, it’s still a good idea to avoid stress. But if you can’t, remedy it by donating to charity. A study of 850 people found that your risk of death increases 30 percent after a major stressful event, like the loss of a loved one. But there’s a treatment: People who helped others—especially by giving—practically eliminated that risk.

Learn more about the inner workings of that beautiful machine between your ears! Tune in to Brain Games Mondays at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.