Stress is a contributing factor for health issues ranging from obesity and diabetes to depression, which is why we’re told to beat, avoid, and reduce it at all costs. But while peace of mind is comforting, you shouldn’t run from every form of pressure. In fact, certain pressures can benefit your body and mind immensely. We spoke with Jim Hudziak, MD, Director of Clinical Sciences at Happy Health, to learn more about what good stress is.
Good Versus Bad Stress
It’s important to first identify the different kinds of stress. Dr. Hudziak notes that both acute (short-lived) and chronic (long-term) stress can be triggered by negative or sudden events. In contrast, the good or positive type takes a less pessimistic approach. “Positive stress is also called eustress and without it we would not be able to survive, strive, and reach the arc of our individual potentials,” he explains. “Good stress behaviors include a number of things many of us avoid such as reaching out to others, taking daily walks, lifting light weights, reading difficult novels, and playing brain puzzles.”
Good stress also includes the anticipatory stresses you feel when you’re pushed to perform at work, in relationships, and life in general. “By engaging in activities that cause eustress rather than avoiding, isolating, and procrastinating, [it] will benefit us in positive ways via brain-body interactions,” he adds.
A 2014 study found that daily walking — rather than staying inside — helped female participants grow a specific region in their brain called the hippocampus. Dr. Hudziak credits this effect to epigenetic (relating to your genes) and hormonal factors that occur during eustress. This benefit is often referred to as “pumping iron for your brain” — and can lead to improved cognition, mood, memory, and relationships.
Similarly, he highlights that new research is emerging around the benefits of reaching out to friends, learning a new language, taking up an instrument, and playing difficult brain puzzles. “In each [scenario], it is stressful to take on a new activity, but by learning to manage that stress, benefits to your brain-body health will follow,” he says.
How To Improve Your Overall Stress Responses
Similar to the saying “If you can’t beat them, join them,” find ways to better navigate stress instead of fighting it. Dr. Hudziak shares four lifestyle approaches that can lead to better well-being:
- Breathing exercises: Brain-body science has produced clear evidence that learning to control your breath is the first step toward managing acute stress response.
- Acts of kindness and gratitude: Building a routine of reaching out to others with a plan to share kindness is an effective way to reduce negative stress.
- A restorative sleep routine: Research suggests that restless and insufficient sleep negatively impact all areas of brain-body health.
- Eating a balanced diet: What you eat directly affects brain function, particularly in stress-response pathways.
Along with practicing healthy everyday habits, speak with your doctor to learn how to avoid letting stress get the best of you. “Most experts in health promotion and illness prevention agree that it is time to help everyone identify and manage the stress in their lives better in order to reduce the toll of psychiatric and general medical illness, says Dr. Hudziak. We couldn’t agree more.
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