The health and wellbeing benefits of stress
Last week, I was in a pretty stressful situation. My heart was pounding, my mouth was dry, my muscles were contracting, and a host of other changes were happening in my body very fast. I was in fight or flight mode. A state of stress that we all know too well. My life wasn’t in danger. Physically, I knew I was safe. But mentally, the situation kicked-off my stress response.
I was speaking at a large high-level sales conference about stress, and was there as the “stress expert”. So, you may think it’s a bit strange that I’m not immune to feeling stress. The thing is, stress isn’t all bad. In this situation, it was helpful and even necessary – it helped me to stay focused and do my job well which was to share with the participants some practical techniques to help them cope with everyday stress and pressures. Although I’ve been speaking in front of large groups now for a number of years, every time I feel that familiar edge of stress. In fact, stress and excitement create the same physiological changes in the body. So, what I was feeling was a kind of nervous excitement!
Stress is only beneficial in the short-term – that’s what it’s designed for. If I was to carry those symptoms of stress with me after the event, into my everyday, then that’s where my physical & mental health starts to suffer.
So how exactly is stress beneficial to our health & wellbeing? Here are a few ways in which short-term stress is good for us.
It improves focus and concentration
Short-term stress can improve the overall function of the brain. The ability to focus and perform is increased during fight or flight situations. This effect has a beneficial effect also on memory. We’re often more productive too when we’re under a healthy amount of stress in the short-term.
It protects the heart
There’s a magic hormone called oxytocin which is released under stress. It’s also released by women during childbirth, breast-feeding and caring for a child. The main role of oxytocin is to help us to connect with people, to create strong social and emotional bonds. Another vital job of this hormone is to slow down the heart rate and reduce blood pressure. This protects the heart and counteracts the negative effects of stress.
It strengthens social connections
Back to oxytocin. Remember that this is the hormone that drives us to seek support and make strong social and emotional bonds with others. We do much better physically and mentally when we have strong and supportive relationships, especially when we’re challenged. Stress makes us more social by releasing this “connecting” hormone. So even if it’s hard to reach out to people when you’re stressed, it’s more important now than ever!
Do men and women cope with stress differently?
When women feel stressed, we often talk about it with friends or family. This reaction to talk often helps us relax and feel better, physically and emotionally – the stress levels in the body return to normal.
Men are generally more reluctant to admit feeling stressed or challenged. They’re more prone to bottling up their feelings and not discuss what they’re finding difficult. This reaction can further increase the stress levels. Studies have shown that oxytocin is released during stress by both men and women, but its effects are enhanced by female hormones while they’re reduced by male hormones. This helps explain why men aren’t generally as programmed as women to talk about their worries and seek support.
November is Men’s Health Awareness month. This year, for the male readers, maybe you can ask for support, reach out to a friend who may be struggling, or join a group sport where you can bring positive change to your physical and mental health. For the ladies, maybe you can encourage a man in your life to do the same! I hope that you have found this article helpful and found one insight or tip about dealing with stress that will help you when you need it. Wishing you a healthy and positive November!
Kerry White is a Corporate Health & Wellbeing Facilitator, Speaker, Yoga Teacher & Shiatsu Therapist and the founder of Kerry Wellbeing. She works with Vhi’s diverse corporate clients designing and delivering her unique Health & Wellbeing sessions and talks.
Kerry has worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) for many years. Her popular Workplace Health & Well-Being sessions and talks aim to equip people with practical tools to help them deal with stress and common health & well-being issues such as backache, fatigue and anxiety. For more information, visit www.kerrywellbeing.com.