Stress may have some important cognitive benefits, new study suggests
In a new study, people who reported feeling no stress experienced better moods and were less likely to have chronic health conditions than people who did face stressors.
However, the people who did not experience stress scored lower on cognition tests. They were also less likely to experience positive events and to give or receive emotional support than people who experienced stress.
If accurate, these findings could complicate the seemingly one-sided relationship between stress and health by suggesting that stress may play a positive role in some elements of health and well-being.
More than 75% of adults living in the United States report experiencing emotional or physical symptoms related to stress.
In addition, a recent survey that the American Psychological Association (APA) commissioned found that almost 78% of adults in the U.S. are experiencing significant stress associated with the current pandemic.
Despite this, there has been little research investigating the possible association between experiencing less stress and an increase in health or well-being.
That is why a team of researchers from Penn State set out to explore whether people who experience little to no stress are healthier than people who do become stressed.
“The assumption has always been that stress is bad,” says senior author David M. Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.
“I took a step back and thought: What about the people who report never having stress? My previous work has focused on people who have higher vs. lower levels of stress, but I’d never questioned what it looks like if people experience no stress. Are they the healthiest of all?”
It can sometimes be helpful. Stress causes a release of epinephrine that makes it easier to do tasks and enhances performance and problem-solving skills.
This rush of epinephrine can also help prepare the body to handle a threat or flee for safety by increasing pulse, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Stress can also act as a source of motivation in everyday situations, such as completing a project or taking a test.
However, research shows that when stress becomes long-term, it can negatively affect every system in the body.
Over time, chronic stress can become debilitating. It can also increase the risk of serious health complications, such as obesity, depression, and heart disease.
Many symptoms of stress are easy to ignore or mistake for symptoms of other common conditions. The symptoms of chronic stress include:
lack of energy, focus, and interest in previously enjoyed activities
being irritable, easy to anger, and forgetful
eating too much or too little
misuse of alcohol or drugs
feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, or out of control
While there is substantial proof of the negative health impacts of stress, little research has assessed whether experiencing less stress actually improves health. According to the new study’s findings, this connection may be more complicated than experts previously thought.
In the study, the researchers tracked 2,804 participants for just over a week. Before the study began, all of the participants completed a cognition test.
During the study, the researchers interviewed the participants nightly for 8 consecutive nights, asking questions about their chronic conditions, physical symptoms, mood, and the number of stressors they experienced during the day. They also asked the participants how many positive experiences they had had within the previous 24 hours.
About 10% of the participants did not report experiencing stress during the study period. These individuals were more likely to experience positive moods and less likely to have chronic health conditions.
On the other hand, the participants who did not experience stress scored lower on the cognition test than those who did. The difference in scores equated to the cognitive decline that would occur in approximately 8 years of aging.
Participants who did not report any stress also experienced fewer positive events than those who did, and they were less likely to give or receive emotional support. These participants were also more likely to be older, unmarried men.
“I think there’s an assumption that negative events and positive events are these polar opposites, but in reality, they’re correlated,” says Almeida.
“It’s possible that experiencing stressors creates opportunities for you to solve a problem — for example, maybe fixing your computer that has suddenly broken down before an important Zoom meeting,” Almeida adds.
“Experiencing these stressors may not be pleasant, but they may force you to solve a problem, and this might actually be good for cognitive functioning, especially as we grow older.”
Almedia notes that minor daily stressors might also be a marker of “a busy and maybe full life.” In this case, he says, “[h]aving some stress is just an indicator that you are engaged in life.”
More research is necessary to define the correlation between stress, health, and emotional well-being.
However, the link is unlikely to be clear and easy to define, given how many factors influence how someone experiences, responds to, and manages stress.
For example, on average, females and males have different mental and physical reactions to stress.
Some groups of people may also be more likely to have exposure to certain stressors. A 2020 study found that in the U.S., some Black and Hispanic people may experience higher rates of stress than white people, due primarily to socioeconomic factors.
Despite the challenge, these new findings could encourage more researchers to explore and better understand whether reducing stress improves health.
It will probably require substantial supportive research, as well as a total shift in how society and researchers view stress, before people start to see stress as a positive event.
However, Almeida says that the team’s findings may offer new insight into how to interact with and process stress, which is a largely unavoidable event for most people. He notes that the findings suggest it may be better to change the response to stress than to try to avoid it outright.
“Stressors are events that create challenges in our lives. And I think experiencing stressors is part of life,” says Almeida.
“I think what’s important is how people respond to stressors. Responding to a stressor by being upset and worried is more unhealthy than the number of stressors you encounter.”