Why Stress can be Beneficial
We think of stress as being a purely negative thing we’d like to avoid – but today on the Wednesday Wellbeing column, we’ll be talking about how stress can be a good thing.
It’s around this time of year that we get that feeling that the pressure of school is starting to mount up. We’d be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, where summer lives, if it wasn’t for exams (mock and real) blocking the way.
Wouldn’t life be about ten times easier if we didn’t feel stressed? At the times when we most need to be cool, calm and collected—when we’ve got a bunch of assignments to juggle with study—we’ve got to deal with stress running like a train over our brains. Man that’s annoying!
As your teachers start saying those horrific words ‘practice exams’ more frequently, you might start feeling like you’re on a speeding train. And it’s coming up to a ravine—and it doesn’t look like there’s tracks over to the other side. And the train’s on fire.
Why does this stressful feeling come up right when we least need it?
It might sound unlikely, but this panic pops up at our busy times for a reason. When the human brain was first evolving, a little stress was the system that evolved to keep us safe. For example, if we didn’t feel stressed about having enough food to eat over winter, would we have stored enough potatoes to last? Nope. Most of our modern lifestyle exists just because back in the day we were worried about not having enough to snack on.
The other major player in the development of our stress response wasn’t having enough to eat, it was not getting eaten.
The fight-or-flight response releases a bunch of chemicals so you can punch that lion on the nose with super-human strength; or maybe just run away from your speech in English. That sweaty, red in the face nervousness is stress in a pure form. Maintaining this fight-or-flight response for a long time isn’t a good idea – it’s too hard on the body to be so full of stress chemicals like cortisol.
Researcher Daniela Kaufer is a scientist researching the biology of stress in rats, which she believes gives insight into how stress affects humans. She compared the memory and learning ability of rats (like the rat version of an NCEA exam) after a period of stress. Rats are stressed by having their movement restricted – Kaufer found that the rats stressed by having their movement restricted for a short time did better on their ‘rat exam.’
In other words, she found evidence that the rats that in a little stress remembered and learnt more than those who weren’t stressed (hadn’t had their movement restricted.)
Kaufer believes that the ways that rats react to stress is similar to humans, saying “manageable stress increases alertness and performance.” She believes this helped us learn survival techniques way back in our evolution – and now we can use it to do well in exams. However, the research also found that rats who were restricted for a long time (and were very stressed) did not do well at the tasks.
When it comes to stress, we need to find strategies to ensure we hit the stress sweet spot that promotes learning.
How do we maintain level of stress somewhere between motivational and fight-or-flight? Well Kaufer suggests it’s all about having the right mindset towards stress as well as sharing the burden of stress with a strong social circle. The next Wednesday Wellness column will look into some of her suggestions for finding the sweet spot.