Can Short-Term Stress Actually Have Some Benefit?

Stress and anxiety—they can be two of the worst feelings you’ll ever experience. But might they actually have some benefits?

Researchers say short-term stress can actually be beneficial as it boosts performance and bolsters our immune systems.

These same researchers add that anxiety can be useful when it jolts us into finishing a task or warns us of danger.

Stress and anxiety can add adrenaline to the circulatory system, increase respiration, slow digestion, and improve vision.

Yes, but…

That’s not to say all stress and anxiety is “good” for you. Chronic stress and unwarranted, illogical anxiety can be unhealthy in a number of ways.

It’s impossible to go through life without dealing with some stress and anxiety.

Nor would you necessarily want to, mental health experts say.

Stress’s bad rep

Chronic stress is usually cast in an unhealthy light. And with good reason.

Heart disease, diabetes, decreased libido, gastrointestinal problems, and disruptions in sleep and appetite are just on the short list of health problems linked to elevated stress over long periods of time.

In 2018, Harvard researchers reported that people with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol performed worse on memory tests.

“The main reason we view stress so negatively is the dominant narrative put forth by stress research,” said Jennifer Wegmann, lecturer in stress management at Binghamton University’s Decker School of Nursing. “[It] focuses on the negative impacts of stress, such as chronic and debilitating diseases like hypertension, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.”

Wegmann notes that 2017 research from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 20 percent of Americans said they were experiencing extremely high levels of stress.

“If Americans can learn to utilize stress in a positive way, it could not only help mitigate the negative outcomes people are experiencing, but lead to improved well-being, more productivity, and personal growth.” — Jennifer Wegmann

“Stress causes harm when it exceeds any level that a person can reasonably absorb or use to build psychological strength,” Lisa Damour, PhD, author of the book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, said in a presentation at the APA’s annual convention in Chicago.

Anxiety as an alarm

Damour likened anxiety to “an internal alarm system, likely handed down by evolution, that alerts us to threats both external—such as a driver swerving in a nearby lane—and internal—such as when we’ve procrastinated too long and it’s time to get started on our work.”

“Anxiety becomes unhealthy when its alarm makes no sense. Sometimes, people feel routinely anxious for no reason at all. At other times, the alarm is totally out of proportion to the threat, such as when a student has a panic attack over a minor quiz.” — Dr. Lisa Damour

Putting the body on high alert

When under stress, the body pumps adrenaline into the bloodstream. That powerful surge of hormones causes multiple physiological reactions, including:

  • increased respiration and blood flow
  • slower digestion
  • improved vision
  • expanded air passages of the lungs
  • redistribution of blood to the muscles
  • altering the body’s metabolism

Kevon Owen, a clinical psychotherapist, likens anxiety to caffeine. “Caffeine is the external imitation of anxiety,” Owen states.

“Stress is your mind’s way of prioritizing and organizing tasks that need to be done. These things do not become negative until they interrupt or disrupt motivators or begin causing negative mental or physical anguish.” — Kevon Owen

Are you experiencing “eustress?”

There’s even a clinical term for positive stress: eustress.

You may be thinking, Positive stress? How can that even be a thing?

Look at it this way, through the lens of some examples of positive stress:

  • Those excited jitters you get when starting a new job
  • Traveling for a big family get-together
  • Buying a house

All of those examples can produce crushing amounts of stress … but the light at the end of the tunnel is so awesome, with such long-term positive benefits, that the accompanying anxiety isn’t so bad at all; a necessary—and temporary—evil.

that experiencing stress can have positive psychological benefits, too.

“Symptoms of stress and anxiety can show up when something is missing from your life, like free time, or when something is important to you,” Sheila Tucker, licensed associate marriage and family therapist and owner of Heart Mind and Soul Counseling [website] said.

“This is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at the situation. By reframing or shifting your perspective of your experience, the grip of stress and anxiety lessen. Not to mention, you gain valuable insight on what’s really going on in your life.” Sheila Tucker

“Anyone feeling overwhelmed by stress should, if possible, take measures to reduce his or her stress and/or seek help from a trained professional to learn stress-management strategies,” Damour said at the APA conference.

“For the management of anxiety, some people find relief through workbooks that help them to evaluate and challenge their own irrational thoughts. If that approach isn’t successful, or preferred, a trained professional should be consulted. In recent years, mindfulness techniques have also emerged as an effective approach to addressing both stress and anxiety,” she continued.

And so…

In light of the existence of eustress, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the notion that people should feel calm and relaxed all the time. If nothing else, it establishes a high bar of well-being that may be unobtainable to many people.

As we’ve explored in many PHMP Online Knowledgebase posts—including this entry from our How to Battle Holiday Stress mini-series—if you operate under the assumption that life should always be joyful, your day-to-day life may ultimately turn out to be … not so great.

That said, stress and anxiety can spiral out of control if left untreated—just stay vigilant and mindful about how you’re feeling and the ways in which your body is reacting!

(This article is brought to you in partnership with the Proactive Health Management Plan and Healthline.)

976 Comments
  • Amy Courtney
    Posted at 21:36h, 11 April

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    Posted at 21:29h, 11 April

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    Posted at 19:43h, 11 April

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  • Connie Burden
    Posted at 17:42h, 11 April

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  • Tina M Price
    Posted at 17:18h, 11 April

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  • Kerven Moon
    Posted at 17:05h, 11 April

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  • Krystal Novotny
    Posted at 16:05h, 11 April

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  • Roy Peter Gillis
    Posted at 15:55h, 11 April

    A great reminder to keep a grip on it.

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    Posted at 14:38h, 11 April

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    Posted at 08:41h, 11 April

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    Posted at 04:44h, 11 April

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    Posted at 22:22h, 10 April

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    Posted at 17:52h, 10 April

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    Posted at 17:38h, 10 April

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