Stress: An Unexpected Friend

by Jefferson Griscavage

Heart pounding. Palms sweating. Stomach sinking. Sound familiar? If you are among the 80 percent of college students who report experiencing daily stress, these feelings are likely no stranger to you.

We are all familiar with the “classic” view of college as a time of freedom, opportunity and self-expression. While this description is certainly true, we also know that it is far from complete. The independence of collegiate life carries with it additional responsibility in the form of exams, projects, clubs, internships and the frightening prospect of post-graduate pursuits. The burden of managing an increased workload is quite substantial. As a result, many of us have reluctantly accepted stress as an inevitable part of life.

We have also been taught all the ways that stress can negatively affect our health. In freshman biology, we learn that stress is defined in medicine as a physical, mental or emotional perturbation causing bodily or mental tension. As a part of the human stress response, our endocrine system secretes stimulatory hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which activate the sympathetic nervous system and the well-known “fight or flight” reaction. In the short term, stress results in elevated heart rate, insomnia and general anxiety. However, a lifetime of stress-induced high blood pressure and high glucose can lead to the ill effects of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, respectively. Given these unwelcome manifestations, it is no surprise that stress is most often portrayed as our worst enemy. 

Now consider this: Is it possible we have simply misunderstood stress all these years? Recent developments indicate this may be the case and that our previous notions about stress are far from complete. Research that aims to shed light on a previously unknown side of stress suggests the existence of diverse stress-response pathways. In fact, instead of being a health detriment, some of these stress-related cellular networks may have a positive impact on our physical and mental well being. Perhaps, instead of being our worst enemy, stress may actually be our body’s long misunderstood friend.

Most surprisingly, recent findings show that our perception of stress may be more important to our health than the amount of stress we experience. This new wave of research is sweeping forward an entirely new understanding of stress. So what exactly are researchers finding?

Stress correlates with better health, if perceived in a positive way

In a 2013 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, researchers analyzed a health survey of 29,000 Americans. Participants reported their stress levels as well as their perception of how stress affects health. The researchers then examined public health records to determine death patterns among survey participants, and the results were quite surprising.

Individuals who reported experiencing high levels of stress and held the belief that stress adversely affects health had a 43 percent increased risk of premature death. However, individuals who experienced high levels of stress but did not believe stress had a negative impact on health had the lowest risk of premature death out of any group—even lower than the individuals who felt little stress.

A clear explanation for these results is not immediately evident. However, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal offered one possible solution in a 2013 speech delivered at TEDGlobal. She explains that during the human stress response, the adrenaline that is released stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and causes peripheral blood vessels to constrict in order to cycle the body’s blood more rapidly. The prolonged constriction of blood vessels over decades of high-stress is a predictor for cardiovascular disease. However, not as widely known is the fact that the human stress response system simultaneously releases the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for the exact opposite effect—vascular dilation. Essentially, our bodies have a built-in mechanism for combatting the vascular constriction accompanying our stress-response.  

Building on this theory, researchers at Harvard University compared blood vessel dilation during the stress response in subjects who were taught to view stress as helpful versus a control group that was not. Researchers found that the peripheral blood vessels of subjects who believed stress was beneficial remained dilated due to the increased role of oxytocin, while individuals in the control group vasoconstricted significantly. This remarkable difference was seemingly due to changes in their perception of stress alone. As explained by McGonigal, “Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s.”

Stress-induced hormones can improve learning and cognitive performance

Beyond the physical effects of stress, there may also exist intellectual benefits. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) designed an experiment to test this hypothesis by subjecting juvenile rats to a “stressful situation,” where they were kept immobilized in very small cages. As anticipated, these rats experienced a surge in corticosterone, a common stress-response hormone. However, the most interesting finding from the experiment was that the spike in corticosterone levels caused the induction of stem cells in the brain to proliferate into neurons early in development. Following neural maturation two weeks later, the new neurons seemed to improve the rats’ mental performance on learning tasks. From these findings, Dr. Daniela Kaufer concluded “stress can be something that makes you better…[it can] push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”

Similarly, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health found that men exposed to acute stress situations outperformed non-stressed control groups in conditioned learning and spatial cognition tasks. The stress group was first exposed to a cold pressor test, where individuals placed their hands in ice water for 60 seconds. This effectively triggered the subjects’ stress-response, as measured by increased salivary cortisol levels and elevated heart rate. The same group was subsequently given an eyeblink conditioning task and a spatial learning test.

Results from the experiment revealed that the stress group performed significantly better on both tests than the control group. Furthermore, it was found that a higher sympathetic nervous system response was positively correlated with higher cognitive test scores. These findings support the conclusions drawn from the UC Berkeley rat study and suggest the presence of underlying physiological mechanisms relating the stress-response to improved learning and mental function.

Viewing stress positively can help you conquer challenges ahead

Dr. Katy Miller, former clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Stress Free Zone, believes it is important to remind ourselves of these findings as we encounter stress in our everyday lives. “Applying behavioral therapy research through cognitive reframing of acute stress situations might be helpful,” she explains. “Interpreting sensations of stress as your body preparing yourself for something important, rather than your body preparing yourself for a threat…can be worthwhile to your wellbeing.” Miller also encourages Pitt students to visit the Stress Free Zone in the William Pitt Union for additional stress-reduction practices.

So, the next time you are feeling anxious at the thought of your upcoming midterm exam, research paper or job interview, keep in mind that stress may not be the enemy you once feared. Stop for a minute. Take a breath. Remember that your pounding heart and tingling fingertips are simply your body’s way of heightening your physical and cognitive abilities. Who knows, recognizing the biological stress-response as an unexpected friend may be your first step towards improving your health and conquering the challenges that lie ahead?