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Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress

The research on how stress affects our body can be confusing. Previous studies have linked chronic stress to a variety of health conditions ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers at Stanford and Yale have found that short-term stress can aid in recovery from surgery and, as senior author of the paper Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, explained in a past Q&A, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that acute stress may have protective or beneficial health properties.

But what about brief bursts of stress when individuals are already coping with something upsetting or feeling anxious? Is this helpful or harmful to the body? To find out, researchers at University of California-San Francisco asked a group of chronically stressed women to give a speech in front of a skeptical panel of judges. The New Scientist reports:

For the stressed women, the extra challenge indeed proved particularly harmful: the threat of the test caused more cellular damage than in the non-stressed controls. Perhaps more intriguing, though, was an unexpected effect [researchers] found within the control group.

Among these normally relaxed women, those who found the task moderately stressful had lower levels of cellular damage than those who did not find it stressful at all. In other words, while chronic stress can have knock-on effects that damage cellular structures, short bursts of stress can reduce such damage and protect our health in some circumstances.

The idea that being under pressure helps to focus attention and makes us better at cognitive tasks has been around for almost a century. But [the UCSF] study is a first step to showing how it can sometimes make us physically healthier as well – although exactly what is going on at the cellular level to explain the result is still unclear.

Previously: Sweating the small stuff may harm your mental health, How does your body respond to stress?, Using an app to get a better handle on what stresses you out, Study suggests anticipation of stress may accelerate cellular aging and Workplace stress and how it influences health
Photo by Sybren A. Stüvel

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