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Worry wart, worry not: Four ways stress can actually benefit your health

October 25, 2013

Do needles make you nervous? Are you anxious about being away from your kids? Take heart: Stress can sometimes be good for you.

According to Staci Bilbo, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, hormonal changes in our brains during stress can powerfully impact our reactions or immunity to negative situations in the long-run. The changes mobilize our bodies to adapt and become more resilient. “In short,” she says, “it may not always be a bad thing if we’re stressed.”

Bilbo, a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), has been researching the mechanisms by which the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems interact—and how these communications influence behavioral outcomes. She is also a faculty adviser for a Bass Connections team studying how unhealthy and stressful living conditions in expectant mothers affect the brains of their developing children.

Bilbo will be at Duke Forward in Chicago on November 2, the first stop this fall in a series of events for the university’s $3.25 billion fundraising campaign. She is one of the DIBS faculty members leading the interactive “Health and Your Brain” session which will delve into the sometimes counterintuitive relationships between physical and mental health.

Bilbo explains some of the unexpected benefits of stress:

Getting used to a little bit of stress when you’re young can make you more resilient in adulthood.

Numerous studies in animals and humans have demonstrated that repeated, manageable stressors early in life—such as a brief daily separation from mom—can markedly decrease anxiety and improve cognition in adulthood by changing the levels of stress hormones produced within the brain. Also, this early-life stress can decrease inflammation that occurs in adulthood that is typically associated with adverse health outcomes, such as heart disease.

You learn and remember new information more effectively under moderate stress.

There is a well-characterized correlation for how stress hormones relate to learning—specifically, the primary stress hormone, cortisol, improves learning and memory at moderate concentrations compared to low or high concentrations.

Brief stress—even if it is unpleasant—prior to vaccinations helps to ramp up your immune system and provide better and longer protection against infection.

Research has found that a 30-minute stressor in rodents (physical restraint under a bright light) augments antibody production—our adaptive immune response—during flu shots and provides greater protection against illness. The benefits can last for as long as nine months.

Pump it to pump up your resistance

Rigorous exercise causes a “fight or flight” physiological stress response almost identical to stressors that would be considered negative, such as a car accident, but works to enhance rather than suppress your immune system. Studies in humans have shown that a short bout of exercise, such as high-intensity treadmill running, done before a vaccination activates a stress response that can increase the body’s resistance to infection.  Similarly, a quick workout prior to surgery or cancer therapy can improve outcomes.

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