Certain types of stress could be good for brain function

Summary: According to a new study, low to moderate stress can help build resilience and reduce the risk of developing more serious mental health disorders, including depression and antisocial behaviors.

Source: University of Georgia

It may feel like an anvil hanging over your head, but that looming deadline stressing you out at work may actually be good for your brain, according to new research from the University of Georgia Youth Development Institute.

Posted in Psychiatric research, the study found that low to moderate levels of stress can help individuals build resilience and reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial behavior. Low to moderate stress can also help individuals cope with future stressful encounters.

“If you are in an environment where you have a certain level of stress, you can develop coping mechanisms that will allow you to become a more efficient and effective worker and organize yourself in a way that will help you perform,” said Assaf Oshri, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

The stress of studying for an exam, preparing for a big meeting at work, or working longer hours to close the deal can potentially lead to personal growth. Being rejected by an editor, for example, can cause a writer to rethink their style. And being fired might cause someone to reconsider their strengths and decide whether to stay in their field or embark on something new.

But the line between the right amount of stress and too much stress is thin.

“It’s like when you keep doing something hard and you get a little numb,” continued Oshri, who also runs the UGA Youth Development Institute. “You push your skin to adapt to this pressure that you put on it. But if you overdo it, you’ll cut your skin.

Good stress can act as a vaccine against the effects of future adversity

The researchers relied on data from the Human Connectome Project, a nationwide project funded by the National Institutes of Health that aims to provide insight into how the human brain works.

For the current study, the researchers analyzed project data from more than 1,200 young adults who reported their level of perceived stress using a questionnaire commonly used in research to measure how uncontrollable and stressful find their lives.

Participants answered questions about how often they had certain thoughts or feelings, such as “in the past month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly ? and “In the past month, how often have you found that you couldn’t cope with all the things you had to do?”

Their neurocognitive abilities were then assessed using tests that measured attention and the ability to suppress automatic responses to visual stimuli; cognitive flexibility or the ability to switch between tasks; the memory of image sequences, which consists in remembering a series of increasingly long objects; working memory and processing speed.

The researchers compared these results with participants’ responses to multiple measures of anxious feelings, attention problems and aggression, among other behavioral and emotional problems.

It shows a person holding their head
The analysis revealed that low to moderate levels of stress were psychologically beneficial, potentially acting as a sort of inoculation against the development of mental health symptoms. Image is in public domain

The analysis revealed that low to moderate levels of stress were psychologically beneficial, potentially acting as a sort of inoculation against the development of mental health symptoms.

“Most of us have negative experiences that make us stronger,” Oshri said. “There are specific experiences that can help you grow or develop skills that will prepare you for the future.”

But the ability to tolerate stress and adversity varies widely among individuals.

Factors such as age, genetic predispositions and having a supportive community to lean on in times of need all play a role in how individuals handle challenges. While a little stress can be good for cognition, Oshri warns that high levels of stress can be incredibly damaging, both physically and mentally.

“At some point, stress becomes toxic,” he said. “Chronic stress, such as the stress that comes from living in abject poverty or being abused, can have very bad health and psychological consequences. It affects everything from your immune system to emotional regulation to brain function. Not all stress is good stress.

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The study was co-authored by Zehua Cui and Cory Carvalho, from the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Georgia, and Sihong Liu, from Stanford University.

About this stress research news

Author: Cole Sosebee
Source: University of Georgia
Contact: Cole Sosebee – University of Georgia
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Access closed.
“Is perceived stress related to improved cognitive functioning and reduced risk of psychopathology? Testing the Hormesis Hypothesis” by Assaf Oshri et al. Psychiatric research


Summary

Is perceived stress related to improved cognitive functioning and reduced risk of psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis

Extensive research documents the impact of psychosocial stress on the risk of developing psychiatric symptoms throughout life. Moreover, there is evidence that cognitive functioning mediates this link. However, a growing body of research suggests that limited stress can lead to cognitive benefits that may contribute to resilience.

The hypothesis that low to moderate levels of stress are linked to more adaptive outcomes has been termed hormesis. Using a sample of young adults from the Human Connectome Project (NOT = 1,206, 54.4% women, Mage = 28.84), the present study aims to test the hormetic effect between low to moderate perceived stress and psychopathological symptoms (internalizing and externalizing symptoms), as well as to cross-sectionally explore the intermediary role of cognitive functioning in this effect.

The results showed that cognitive functioning was a potential intermediary mechanism underlying the curvilinear associations between perceived stress and externalizing, but not internalizing, behaviors.

This study provides preliminary support for the benefits of limited stress for the process of human resilience.

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