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When Is Stress Good for You? [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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We hear a lot about the downsides of stress. Too much of it can impair thinking, harm our health and, more prosaically, put us in a bad mood. But anyone who pontificates about the risks of chronic stress would be remiss in not pointing out that some measure of psychological tension is an important (not to mention unavoidable) part of life. The problem with stress for many of us is not  its existence, but our inability to handle it. Luckily, we can train ourselves to make stress work for–rather than against–us.

The ability to harness the stress response in a constructive way is the biological definition of resilience. Scientists have discovered a number of ways to build resilience (see “Enhance Your Resilience,” by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, Scientific American Mind, July/August, 2013). One effective technique is to take on challenges that provoke moderate anxiety, such as speaking in front of a small group, and then gradually expose yourself to more vexing circumstances, such as confronting a larger audience. This technique is termed “stress inoculation.” It is based on the notion that exposure to increasingly difficult, but still-manageable challenges enables a person to handle more intense versions of the same. An athlete invokes a similar principle when he or she builds physical endurance by engaging in increasingly challenging workouts. Scientists are beginning to understand what happens in the brain when we inoculate ourselves against stress in this way.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Zam 1:48 pm 06/6/2013

    I agree with the author that taking on challenges which stress us, can indeed build resilience. During my married life, I positively took on those kinds battles which give me confidence and a backbone. However, due to personal circumstances, I have been under undue stress continuously for the last 15+ years and this has led, not only to the common symptoms already described in the article, but also a rare, potentially life threatening condition which I lay firmly at the door of ‘living on the edge’. The other crucial factor is that my earlier challenges were largely self imposed whereas the latest were inflicted upon me, with the consequential lack of control of one’s life. That is an intolerable strain and is definitely unhealthy!

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  2. 2. S. N. Tiwary 7:34 pm 06/7/2013

    Stress is sometimes good because we learn how to handle it.It enhances resilience.
    S. N. Tiwary

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