Good news! Contrary to popular belief, the sense of dread you feel in the pit of your stomach every time you glance at your to-do list won't actually send you to an early grave. A decades-long joint study conducted by Oxford University and the University of New South Wales found that stress and misery have no immediate impact on the length of a person's life. However, the decisions we make as a result of those feelings could. In fact, Professor Sir Richard Peto of Oxford said that "worry does not kill you," he added that "the behavior that worry causes could have adverse effects - like smoking or drinking. But, does actual happiness itself or stress itself kill you? Then no."
So, stress and misery aren't killing, they are only making you feel that way. There have been other studies which have taken it a step further and said that it is beneficial to get stressed. Could this really be possible? Below are five of those theories:
1. It helps your memory
A hefty amount of research suggests that stress hormones relate to learning abilities and the retention of information. If maintained at reasonable levels - as high levels can lead to depression and fatigue - the 'stress hormone' cortisol can be incredibly helpful in focusing the mind and improving short-term memory until a task is complete - very much like studying for an exam.
In 2013, experiments conducted on rats at the University of Berkeley in California found that minor stressful events caused the rodents to create more nerve cells in the brain. They also found that a rat's memory improved two weeks after a stressful event, but not after two days.
Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology said that "in terms of survival, the nerve cell proliferation doesn't help you immediately after the stress because it takes time for the cells to become mature, functioning neurons. But in the natural environment where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat."
It is believed that being stressed can give you an extended period of defense against illness. In fact, it seems that being anxious about something lets the immune system know that you may need its help in overcoming whatever it is you are anxious about. It's also been suggested that experiencing stress before receiving a vaccination could help you be better protected.
In a 2012 study conducted by the Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation, and Infection, they drew blood from rats before and after stressful events. After the latter samples, it was found that huge amounts of immune cells had been mobilized, released by the adrenal glands.
Still, you don't want to keep your immune system on high alert at all times. Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar of Stanford says that "nature uses the brain, the organ most capable of detecting an approaching challenge, to signal that detection to the rest of the body by directing the release of stress hormones. Without them, a lion couldn't kill, and an Impala couldn't escape."
3. It's motivating
While it may be obvious, in the case of pre-match jitters, a little stress can be a strike of clear urgency needed to make sure a task is done. And if not overdoing it, stress can help you become more efficient and creative by way of necessity. According to Dr. Kerry McGonigal of Stanford University, "it all depends on how you look at it." In 2013, her book The Upside of Stress posited that with sheer willpower previously negative feelings can be reinvented as something else.
"We are born with so many instincts for thriving under stress. If you can view stress as it is happening, you can alter the effect it has on you." She adds, "You don’t need to go into therapy for 20 years. The key is changing how we think about it. If you embrace stress, you can transform fear into courage, isolation into connection, and suffering into meaning.”
Time and time again we have been told that stressed mothers-to-be will place undue strain on the baby and this is categorically a bad thing. But, according to a study conducted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2006, it was actually found that mild maternal stress might help children to mature quicker.
It was found that of those tested, children of mothers who were anxious during pregnancy showed greater motor and developmental skills as two-year-olds than those of entirely relaxed stock. Janet A DiPietro, lead author of the study adds that “Our findings should provide relief to women who are experiencing the normal anxieties and stresses common to the demands of modern life. In essence, women can stop worrying that their emotional state is harming their unborn baby."
5. It toughens you up
A child who has suffered the trials of school knows that a little panic can be formative. This occurs in adults too. For instance, the first day in a new job, making friends, performing in public - these are all means of 'positive stress' and they are an example of anxiety that works out for the better, probably forcing us to avoid mistakes and not take dangerous risks.
Moderate stress has also been shown to be beneficial. In a 2012 survey conducted on 2,400 people by psychologists at the University of Buffalo found that those who had faced adverse life experiences were more well-adjusted than those without.