Monday, July 13, 2015

Stressed Out? Lucky You.

We’ve written before about the positive impact some stress can have on test-taking. Now, recent research adds even more reasons to be at least a little grateful for looming deadlines or long to-do lists.

According to Dr. Salvatore Maddi of the University of California Irvine, people who understand that stress is inevitable tend to perform best under stress. Those who try to avoid it, on the other hand, are not only fighting a losing battle, they are setting themselves up to let stress get the best of them. Stress is not just a necessary unpleasantness, though. Stress is actually an opportunity: it can help us learn and grow.

According to Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a psychologist at Stanford and author of The Upside of Stress, our bodies release both nerve growth factor and a stress-recovery hormone called DHEA when we experience stress. Both of them increase neuroplasticity, priming our brains to learn from our experiences. Interestingly, undergoing stressful situations helps inoculate people for future, similar stresses; this explains why realistic training situations help prepare Navy SEALS or why seasoned emergency room doctors can keep their cool in the most chaotic of situations. 

Understanding stress can help make the difference between being paralyzed and empowered. Researcher Alia Crum tested this out with a group of students at Columbia Business School. Both groups underwent a stressful interview. First, though, half of the students watched a short video about how stress can improve performance. The other half watched a video that described the negative effects of stress. Sure enough, the group that watched the positive video actually released more DHEA during the interview, setting them up to be enriched (instead of crushed) by the experience.

To learn more, watch Dr. McGonigal’s TED Talk on this topic:

Appreciating the benefits stress can have on our ability to improve and learn may not make you feel thrilled when you’re totally swamped. But we hope it feels like a silver lining.

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