Stress may have some important cognitive benefits, new study suggests

  • In a new study, people who reported feeling no stress experienced better moods and were less likely to have chronic health conditions than people who did face stressors.
  • However, the people who did not experience stress scored lower on cognition tests. They were also less likely to experience positive events and to give or receive emotional support than people who experienced stress.
  • If accurate, these findings could complicate the seemingly one-sided relationship between stress and health by suggesting that stress may play a positive role in some elements of health and well-being.

More than 75% of adults living in the United States report experiencing emotional or physical symptoms related to stress.

In addition, a recent survey that the American Psychological Association (APA) commissioned found that almost 78% of adults in the U.S. are experiencing significant stress associated with the current pandemic.

The body is equipped to handle small, occasional periods of stress, but researchers have linked excessive or chronic stress with a slew of negative health consequences, ranging from migraine headaches to cardiovascular problems.

Despite this, there has been little research investigating the possible association between experiencing less stress and an increase in health or well-being.

That is why a team of researchers from Penn State set out to explore whether people who experience little to no stress are healthier than people who do become stressed.

“The assumption has always been that stress is bad,” says senior author David M. Almeida, a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.

“I took a step back and thought: What about the people who report never having stress? My previous work has focused on people who have higher vs. lower levels of stress, but I’d never questioned what it looks like if people experience no stress. Are they the healthiest of all?”

The study appears in the APA’s journal Emotion.

Stress and health

Stress is a healthy human response that most people experience from time to time.

It can sometimes be helpful. Stress causes a release of epinephrine that makes it easier to do tasks and enhances performance and problem-solving skills.

This rush of epinephrine can also help prepare the body to handle a threat or flee for safety by increasing pulse, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Stress can also act as a source of motivation in everyday situations, such as completing a project or taking a test.

However, research shows that when stress becomes long-term, it can negatively affect every system in the body.

Over time, chronic stress can become debilitating. It can also increase the risk of serious health complications, such as obesity, depression, and heart disease.

Many symptoms of stress are easy to ignore or mistake for symptoms of other common conditions. The symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • headaches
  • digestive problems
  • skin problems
  • pain
  • lack of energy, focus, and interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • being irritable, easy to anger, and forgetful
  • eating too much or too little
  • misuse of alcohol or drugs
  • feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful, or out of control
  • feeling depressed
  • insomnia
  • heart palpitations

While there is substantial proof of the negative health impacts of stress, little research has assessed whether experiencing less stress actually improves health. According to the new study’s findings, this connection may be more complicated than experts previously thought.