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Stress Is Our Secret Superpower

  • Joanna
  • November 3, 2021

This year, National Stress Awareness Day is Nov. 3, 2021. We have all probably read more about stress over the past year and a half than we wanted to, so we decided to focus this year on the positive impacts of stress.

We have often heard that life changes like getting married, moving to a new home, having a new baby, or starting a new job are stressors, even though all of these changes can be incredibly positive. Well, it turns out that just as positive change can induce stress, it’s also true that stress can induce positive change.

Let’s take a look at three ways stress can actually benefit us and how we can reclaim some of the narratives around stress from the past nearly two years of the global pandemic.

Stress Makes Us Smarter

Stress, whether good or bad, can activate our fight or flight response, and in moderation, these responses can help us: Stress heightens our senses and makes us more alert. This can help us focus on projects and be more productive. The key to the benefit of this kind of stress is that it’s short-term stress, such as the kind of stress we experience when we have a deadline. Sometimes the deadline is for a report or a grant proposal. Other times, the deadline is a wedding date or the closing of a home purchase. Either way, the deadline represents the purported end of that period of stress, and the energy produced from the stressor can help motivate us to keep up our momentum for a specific period of time to help us accomplish all of the tasks related to the coming date.

Some of us can relate to the end of the school term being a stressful time because it seems that multiple deadlines are upon us at once. However, if we learn to channel our energy and view these deadlines as motivators instead of punitive, we can use these periods as highly productive (and try to schedule a period of rest at the end of them to recover from the metaphorical sprints we undertake).

Why does stress heighten our senses? It’s largely related to our survival: When we perceive threats, whether they are physical threats to our lives and safety or mental and emotional threats to our well-being, our brains increase performance to ensure our survival. Stress strengthens the connection between neurons in our brains and can improve mental performance for a brief period even after the stressor is removed.

Stress Can Keep Us Healthy

In addition to stimulating our brains, stress also activates our immune systems (which is again related to survival). Have you ever worried about getting sick before an important event or before you can complete an urgent assignment? And have you ever noticed that you have a tendency to get sick after the deadline has passed? Many students remember going home for breaks when in college, and they always seemed to get sick or slept constantly during breaks. Their body was building itself back up after enduring periods of stress related to studying for finals. The same is true of us now that we are adults — we experience brief periods of high stress and then our bodies need extra rest to compensate.

Researchers have learned that in response to even mild stress, our bodies release three separate hormones, in different amounts and at different times, that mobilize immune cells into our bloodstreams and redistribute them throughout the body. This is similar to what happens after patients have surgery, to boost their recovery. Unfortunately, just as the stress is temporary, this additional immunity is also temporary, so it’s important to get lots of rest and take other preventive measures at the same time to keep from getting sick once our immunity levels have returned to normal.

Stress Increases Our Resilience

Enduring stress makes us stronger, which may be our favorite benefit. Stress increases our resilience, especially after repeated exposure.

A Graduation Alliance team member shared the following story:

I’ll never forget the panic I felt my sophomore year of high school when my English teacher told us that we had to submit a typed (I’m dating myself here) 5-page paper on a book read outside of class every three weeks. At the time, it seemed like an impossible ask, a high price to pay for an advanced placement course. But I did the first paper. And then another, and another. And I did it every three weeks for three years of high school. By the time I got to college, the idea of doing a 5-page paper didn’t even make me blink. I remember my dad, who taught college, saying that my high school teachers asked us to do things he wouldn’t even dream of asking his students to do. But maybe that’s the problem: If we don’t ask — and expect — high performance from people, we do not give them the opportunity to step up and meet challenges.

The short-term stress of having a deadline every three weeks eventually translated, for me and my fellow students, into important skills. We all learned that we could manage our time so efficiently that not only did we have time to read a book of literature on top of our regular school work, but we also had time to write papers about those books — one every three weeks. That’s more reading than I do now, to be perfectly honest. Additionally, we learned to think critically, analyze, and, of course, write. The more we write, the better we are, which is true of almost anything we practice.

Once I knew that I could write a 5-page paper every three weeks, other academic tasks became more manageable, too. If I could write a 5-page paper, I could write ten. I could write twenty, with research and citations. I could create an annotated bibliography. I could complete a master’s thesis. Now, I write professionally, and there is no doubt in my mind that the stress I once encountered when I was 15 years old contributed substantially to my ability to meet my deadlines now. I still experience deadline- and project-related stress, but I no longer panic.

Just as starting out by lifting small amounts of weights makes our muscles stronger or running short distances increases our physical stamina, short periods of stress can also make us stronger by teaching us what we are made of. We build resilience because we learn that the momentary panic feelings subside and that the heightened awareness, mental capacity, and energy that these stressful episodes give us make us capable of feats we didn’t previously know we were capable of. Even when we weren’t necessarily aware that stress was helping us in these ways.

Stress is an inevitable part of adult life, especially for those of us who choose careers in which we are frequently challenged. It’s not enjoyable, but it doesn’t have to be anxiety-inducing or crippling either.

If we can reframe how we respond to stress, we can take advantage of its benefits. Of course, this works best with short-term stress, and we cannot always control that. But if we can learn to recognize stress that is particular to a specific life event or upcoming date, we can learn to respond to stress offensively instead of defensively. And more importantly, we start to become aware of our own strengths and our ability not only to survive stress, but also to use stress to thrive.