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When thinking about what hinders people’s ability to do their jobs well – not to mention function normally outside the office – stress is probably public enemy number one.
But over recent years there has been a new school of thought around the effects of stress, and how the heart-thumping, sweat-inducing consequences can actually be harnessed in a positive way to increase health benefits and maximise life expectancy.
Yes, you heard right. Some scientists actually believe that, if managed properly, stress can prolong your life rather than be the death sentence it is currently advertised as.
It’s good news for most of us, who are having more trouble than ever disconnecting from the office and blending our professional and private lives in a way which allows us to be productive and motivated at home and at work.
Here are a few little-heard-of positive effects of stress which might help you deal with high pressure situations better.
1. Stress can help you make better decisions
Regular exposure to stress actually helps leaders train their brains to regulate emotions and make clear decisions when the pressure is on.
Research from the Ashridge Business School found bosses benefit from being places in stressful situations regularly, as they learn how to manage high-level decision making and stressful conversations, allowing them to avoid being ‘beaten’ by stress and having their concentration or confidence broken.
In fact, learning in a stressful environment is a powerful way to increase cognitive abilities in the long-term, as most leaders tend to perform at their peak when both their brain and body are stimulated by a stressful situation.
2. Stress might actually make you live longer
In her TED talk last year, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explored her research which found stress might only have negative health consequences if you believe that it will. Because of this, her suggestion is that instead of fearing stress, we should make it our friend and learn how to harness it in a positive way.
In her talks she references research done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which found of 29,000 respondents to a 1998 survey on the effects of stress on their health, those who lived longer were the people who reported high levels of stress in their lives, but had little or no perception that stress impacted their health. Those who reported high stress levels and did believe stress was a major hazard converted to a 43% increased risk of premature death.
3. Stress might actually boost your immune system
This study found that short-term bursts of stress cause your adrenal glands to ‘summon’ immune cells from where they are “resting” and move them to where they will be needed in weaker parts of your body. Sounds crazy, right?
In Firdaus Dhabhar’s research from Stanford University he argues it makes evolutionary sense that stressful activities would trigger stress hormones which help us, rather than hinder us. The immune system isn’t kept on high alert at all times, but using the example of an impala and a lion, Dhabhar argues “An impala’s immune system has no way of knowing that a lion is lurking in the grass and is about to pounce, but its brain does”. In these situations, the immune cells are triggered for certain areas, such as the skin membranes, which are at high risk of damage in an attack.
“Mother Nature gave us the fight-or-flight stress response to help us, not to kill us,” he said.
4. Stress can help you make more friends
You know that feeling of camaraderie that build when you and someone else are stuck in a stressful situation together, whether it’s getting lost in an unfamiliar place or working until 4am on a proposal? That’s a feeling which is helped along by stress.
According to a study from the University of Freiburg, students working under a “stress condition” with others were found to exhibit more “prosocial” behaviours – such as being more willing to trust and showing a great propensity to share – than those who were placed in a control condition.
5. Stress can help improve your memory
The University of Buffalo decided to test this theory using rats – half of which they make take a 20 minute swim (rats are rather adverse to water) and then navigate a maze, and half which were kept out of the water. In trials a number of hours later, researchers found the rats who had been placed in a stressful situation by swimming completed a maze with significantly fewer mistakes than those which did not swim.
Another study (on humans this time) gave students a memory test using patterns on card after submitting them to a stressful situation designed to increase their cortisol levels. Those who went through the stress-test first were able to complete the memory test with far fewer mistakes.