STRESS
March 11, 2020

The Upside of Stress

Yes, stress has some benefits. Knowing what they are can make it a little easier to cope with.

Most of us would love to have less stress in our life. Since that's often easier said than done, maybe the next best thing is to know there can be an upside to stress. It seems to help us connect better with our fellow human beings and help them connect better with us. You could call stress the great humanizer.

People are more than twice as likely to either give or receive emotional support on days that they are stressed. At least that's what happened in a study of over 1,500 people.

It may help to realize that there are some benefits to stress when it finds you.

“Our findings suggest that just because we have a bad day, that doesn't mean it has to be completely unhealthy,” said study co-author, David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. “If stress can actually connect us with other people, which I think is absolutely vital to the human experience, I think that's a benefit. Stress could potentially help people deal with negative situations by driving them to be with other people.”

The researchers interviewed 1,622 adults every night for eight nights, asking them about the day's stressful events and whether they gave or received emotional support on that day. Stressors included arguments and other stressful events at work, school and home.

People in the study were more than twice as likely to either give or receive emotional support on days they experienced a stressor. This was true for both sexes, but the effect was stronger in women than in men.

Stressed people were also 26 percent more likely to give or receive support on the following day.

One interpretation is that stress helps people to step outside of themselves and gets them to turn to other people with their problems.

Others may offer their help without even being asked because when people are stressed, it often shows. When raters were asked to compare before and after pictures of people who had been successfully treated for sleep apnea, in one study they judged the earlier sleep-deprived photos as clearly older looking and less attractive. That's just one example of how people's stress can be seen by others.

This all suggests that strategies to lower someone's stress might look to the people around them for help.

Of course, ill effects of stress on health — increased risk of heart disease, weakened immune function and increased depressive symptoms, to name a few — are well documented. So while it may not make much sense to seek stress out for its humanizing effect, it may help to realize that there are some benefits to stress when it finds you.

The Penn State study appears in Stress & Health.

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