Why a moderate amount of stress is good for you

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Stress has been linked with a string of issues including depression, dementia and cancer.

But Professor Ian Robertson, the author of the book, The Stress Test: how pressure can make you stronger and sharperout on June 16 argued that the right amount of stress can actually increase our productivity.

Stress causes an area in our brain to create neodrenaline, which eases the communication between the different parts of our brain. As long as we have the right amount of the chemical, stress can push us to perform better.

“There’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner,” Professor Robertson told Quartz.

“As long as it’s not too stressful, we can build stronger brain function. If we have stronger brain function we’ll be happier, we’ll be less anxious, less depressed and we’ll be smarter,” he added.

Robertson, a professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin and a cognitive neuroscientist, added that our approach to stress is what will likely determine the effect it will have on us.

Many people currently being medicated for depression could do without antidepressants, according to Robertson.

“We can change the chemistry of the brain just as much as any antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug can, but we have to learn the habits to do that,” he said.

1.    Don’t accept “fixed” thinking

Professor Robertson argues that we should stop thinking of ourselves as victims and  avoid “fixed” thinking.

Fixed thinking means that when adversity strikes we don’t feel we can do anything to help ourselves.

This can be “fatalistic” Robertson told Quartz, which is why it is important to examine the source of our beliefs about emotions or capacities (e.g. “I am going to fail my exams”, “I am bad at my job”) and take control to change them.

2.    Transform stress into excitement

A person experiencing stress is likely to have the same symptoms as someone who is excited – dry mouth, sweating, racing heart – and this can be used in our advantage.

Individuals feel anxious often, especially prior to important tasks like speaking publicly or meeting with a boss. Rather than calming down, which doesn’t always work, they could overcome the situation by tricking themselves into thinking they are excited, according to a study conducted by Alison Wood Brooks a professor at Harvard Business School.

Professor Robertson said stress should be seen as a challenge instead of being a threat.

“Making that mental switch, just re-framing it reduces stress and improves performance,” he said.

“If you adopt the external manifestation of confidence and positivity, you can trick your brain into creating the mental correlates of that fake external posture,” he added.

3.    Parents should not shield their children from stressful situation

Children need to experience a certain amount of challenges so that both their body and mind become more resilient, according to Robertson.

“There’s a sweet spot of adversity that someone can have, particularly in the first two decades of their life that seems to make them emotionally robust,” Robertson said.

In line with this, a study showed that children adopted at a young age, which is considered to be a moderate stress, had lower level of cortisol in stressful situation later in life when compared to children who had not yet experienced adversity.

4.    Accept challenges and use stress as a motivator

Accept the idea that controlled stress can be used as a motivator.

“Many comedians and performers worry if they don’t feel that edge of anxiety before a performance,” Robertson said.

“Tiger Woods says if he doesn’t feel anxious before a match, he knows he’s going to do badly,” he added.

This was first published in The Independent 13th June 2016