Mild levels of stress can actually be beneficial to your body by forcing it to optimize brain cognition and bodily functions.
New research from the University of Georgia Institute for Youth Development suggests that the stress of the holiday season may have a positive impact on brain function, specifically working memory.
The study found that low to moderate levels of stress can actually improve working memory, which is the cognitive function that allows people to temporarily hold and manipulate information in their minds to complete everyday tasks, such as remembering a phone number or remember directions.
However, there is a caveat, the researchers said. The findings are specific to low to moderate stress. Once your stress levels rise above moderate levels and become constant, that stress becomes toxic.
“The poor outcomes of stress are pretty clear and not new,” said Assaf Oshri, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. It leads to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, decision making, self-control, emotional regulation, and more. Chronic stress can also make people more susceptible to a variety of illnesses ranging from nausea and migraines to high blood pressure and heart disease.
“But there is less information about the effects of more limited stress,” Oshri said. “Our findings show that low to moderate levels of perceived stress were associated with elevated working memory neural activation, resulting in improved mental performance.”
In previous research, Oshri and her colleagues have shown that low to moderate levels of stress could help people build resilience and reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial behaviors. That study also showed that limited episodes of stress can help people learn how to deal with future stressful situations.
The present study builds on that work, providing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that shows how low to moderate stress can cause the parts of the brain that control working memory to do their job more effectively.
Support networks, friends and family can help people cope with stress in healthy ways
Researchers analyzed MRIs from the Human Connectome Project of more than 1,000 people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Human Connectome Project aims to provide insight into how the human brain works.
The results suggested that people who reported low to moderate stress levels had increased activity in the parts of the brain that involve working memory. Participants who said they experienced chronically high levels of stress showed a decrease in those areas.
To assess perceived stress levels, participants answered questions about how often they experienced certain thoughts or feelings. For example, “In the last month, how often have you been upset by something that happened unexpectedly?” and “In the last month, how often have you found that you couldn’t cope with all the things you had to do?” This scale has been shown to be an effective measure in a variety of other international studies.
The researchers also examined the participants’ social networks using a variety of measures, including how individuals felt about their own ability to handle unexpected events, how satisfied they were that their lives are important and meaningful, and the availability of support based in friends on their social networks. .
To test working memory, participants were presented with a series of four types of images of things like tools and people’s faces and then asked to recall if they were the same photos they were shown before. The researchers then analyzed MRIs of the participants’ brains as they completed the tasks to assess neural activation in different parts of the brain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants who said they had more support from their families and friends seemed better able to deal with low to moderate levels of stress in a healthy way.
“You need to have the right resources to strengthen yourself in the face of adversity and stress,” Oshri said. “For some people, being exposed to adversity is a good thing. But for others, maybe not. You may be able to handle more stress if you have a supportive community or family.”
Reference: “Low to moderate level of perceived stress strengthens working memory: Testing the hormesis hypothesis through neural activation” by Assaf Oshri, Zehua Cui, Max M. Owens, Cory A. Carvalho, and Lawrence Sweet , August 28, 2022, neuropsychology.
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