A small to moderate amount of stress may actually help improve mental health and improve resilience

A little stress can be good for the brain, but not too much stress.

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New research from the University of Georgia Youth Development Institute reports that low to moderate levels of stress can help support people’s development. Such exposure fosters resilience, the authors explain, and helps reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression or antisocial behavior throughout an individual’s life. It also helps people better deal with stressful encounters in the future.

As such, a certain amount of stress can be beneficial to our development, the authors argue: the trick is not to overdo it. Some examples of these beneficial levels of stress include studying for a test, preparing for a work meeting, or putting in a few extra hours to meet a deadline.

gradual exposure

“If you are in an environment where you have some level of stress, you can develop coping mechanisms that allow you to become a more efficient and effective worker and organize yourself in a way that helps you perform,” said Assaf Oshri, lead author. of the study and associate professor in the Faculty of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“It’s like when you keep doing something difficult and you get a little numb in your skin. You make your skin adapt to this pressure that you are applying to it. But if you do too much, you’re going to cut your skin.”

When an aspiring writer gets his draft rejected, he experiences quite a bit. stress. Someone who fails a job interview will find themselves in a similar state. But rejection can lead the writer to rethink his style and improve, or the worker to reconsider his strengths and abilities and whether he wants to stay in the field or expand into a new one.

A ‘good’ level of stress can act as a catalyst for our personal development and make us more resilient to adversity in the future. At the same time, too much stress can leave us feeling exhausted and debilitated, depleting our inner resources and potentially leaving us more vulnerable to unfortunate circumstances should they arise.

The researchers relied on data from the Human Connectome Project, a national project funded by the National Institutes of Health that aimed to obtain data on how the human brain works. The study used data from more than 1,200 young adults who participated in that project. These participants reported their perceived stress levels using a questionnaire that is commonly used to measure the degree to which people perceive their lives as stressful and uncontrollable.

The questionnaire included questions such as “in the last month, how often have you been upset by something that happened unexpectedly?” or “In the last month, how often did you find that he couldn’t cope with all the things he had to do?”

In addition to their responses here, the study also measured each participant’s neurocognitive abilities using attention span tests and their ability to suppress automatic responses to visual stimuli. They measured their cognitive flexibility, their ability to switch between tasks, their memory for image sequences (memorizing increasingly long series of objects), their working memory and their general speed of data processing. Data related to the levels of anxiety felt by each participant (obtained from multiple measures of self-reported anxiety, attention problems, and aggressive behavior) along with other behavioral and emotional problems were also taken into account.

Based on their analysis, the team says that low to moderate levels of stress were actually beneficial to the participants’ psyches. It appears to act as a kind of inoculation buffer against mental health symptoms, the team explains.

“Most of us have some adverse experiences that actually make us stronger,” Oshri said. “There are specific experiences that can help you evolve or develop skills that will prepare you for the future.”

That said, research also shows that the ability to withstand stress and cope with adversity is also highly dependent on the individual. Factors such as age, genetic predispositions to certain mental health problems, and having a support network to turn to in times of need determine how well people can handle life’s challenges and the stresses they bring.

Also, while a little bit of stress can be good for our brains, sustained high levels of stress are incredibly damaging both mentally and physically.

“At a certain point, stress becomes toxic,” explains Oshri. “Chronic stress, like the stress that comes from living in extreme poverty or being abused, can have very bad health and psychological consequences. It affects everything from your immune system to emotional regulation to brain function. Not all stress is good stress.

The findings shed new light on the topic of stress, which is generally perceived as a universally bad element in one’s life. It shows that certain levels of stress can, in fact, help us stay healthy, engaged, and growing. However, the findings also reinforce what we have all observed in our lives: too much stress is very bad for us. The problem, as always, is that the dose produces the poison.

The article “Is perceived stress related to better cognitive functioning and a lower risk of psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis” has been published In the diary research in psychiatry.

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