When Stress Is Good for You
A little stress is helpful for peak performance, but too much can literally shut down the brain.
By learning to identify and manage individual reactions to stress, people can develop healthier outlooks as well as improve performance on cognitive tests, at work and in athletics, researchers and psychologists say.
The body has a standard reaction when it faces a task where performance really matters to goals or well-being: The sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands pump stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. Heartbeat and breathing speed up, and muscles tense.
What happens next is what divides healthy stress from harmful stress. People experiencing beneficial or “adaptive” stress feel pumped. The blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to help the brain, muscles and limbs meet a challenge, similar to the effects of aerobic exercise, according to research by Wendy Mendes, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and others.
The body tends to respond differently under harmful or threatening stress. The blood vessels constrict, and “you may feel a little dizzy as your blood pressure rises,” says Christopher Edwards, director of the behavioral chronic pain management program at Duke University Medical Center. Symptoms are often like those you feel in a fit of anger. You may speak more loudly or experience lapses in judgment or logic, he says. Hands and feet may grow cold as blood rushes to the body’s core. Research shows the heart often beats erratically, spiking again and again like a seismograph during an earthquake.