Short Bursts Of Stress May Be Good For Your Immune System
The American lifestyle seems defined by stress. Everyone experiences stress whether it is sitting in a traffic jam on the way to work, separating fighting kids, working on a tight deadline or competing for a position on a sports team. Some people seem to handle stress better than others, but everyone feels the effects from stress. Surprisingly enough, researchers have discovered that not all stress is bad.
People have known for a long time about stress being detrimental to health, and for the most part, that is true. Long-term stresses take their toll on the body. Stress is a form of energy, and stress produces hormones in the body. When these hormones are being released for long periods-longer than twenty-four hours-they are harmful to the body. Long-term stress lasting for weeks and longer causes high blood pressure, depression, exhaustion and heart disease. In addition, long-term exposure to these stress-activated hormones affects the heart's arteries and the way cells reproduce.
Two psychologists, Dr. Susan Segerstrom from the University of Kentucky and Dr. Gregory Miller from the University of British Columbia, wanted to find out how different stresses affected the body's immune system. They examined 293 studies from thirty years of research on stress and the immune system involving almost 19,000 people. The studies placed people in all different kinds of stress-from people asked to do mental math to people literally running for their lives. The two psychologists divided the stresses into groups based on the severity of the stress and how long it lasted. They then checked these against the immune system responses (1).
The study confirmed that severe stresses over long periods of time were indeed bad for the immune system. These situations usually caused a wearing down of the immune system. The real surprise, however, was that short bursts of stress, like one might experience in a test or public speaking, jump-started the immune system response. The two psychologists surmised that this was the fight-or-flight response which helps the body react to danger. They actually likened this response to a workout for the immune system (2).
Good News About Stress
Short-term stress can cause people to work efficiently to solve the problem. It can improve memory function, heart function and even help strengthen the immune system. There is evidence that short-term stress helps to protect people against Alheimer's (3). In addition, it helps protect against breast cancer by shutting down the production of estrogen. Researchers from Johns Hopkins also discovered that women who have more short-term stress during pregnancy had children who were developmentally ahead of those who did not (4).
Walking the Line
While it is good news that stress can be good for a person as long as it is in short bursts, it is very important to realize how bad stress over a long time can be on the body. People should learn to pray, meditate, go to therapy or exercise to help their bodies deal with long-term stress. On the other hand, it is good to know that every stress a person feels will not be bad for her body and can, in fact, be helpful to her body. References: