There’s a widening gap between the evolution of biology and society. We no longer hunt lions, but a meeting with a rival brings about the same mental and physical responses. How you choose to respond to, and cope with, stress can change not only how you feel, but its effect on your brain. If you react passively, the stress can be damaging. In contrast, active coping moves you out of pessimism, fear and retreat.
Research shows that a little stress is actually beneficial. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy studiedthe impact of low dosages of radiation on nuclear shipyard workers. Those exposed to very low levels had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than workers who received no exposure. Researchers had expected the opposite result. Somehow, instead of killing cells, the radiation dose made them stronger. What we’ve learned since is that low levels of stress seem to inoculate the brain, just as vaccines protect the immune system. Our brain cells overcompensate to deal with stress, thus girding themselves against future demands.
How Stress Affects the Brain
Severe stress activates the “emergency phase,” commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. It’s a complex physiological reaction that marshals resources to mobilize the body and brain to peak performance. It also engraves the memory so we can avoid this stressor in the future. Any amount of stress triggers neurological systems that manage attention, energy and memory. Our ingrained reaction is essentially a three-step process:
- Recognize the danger.
- Fuel the reaction.
- Remember the event for future reference.
The Wisdom of Stress
When the brain employs this three-step process, stress actually becomes a building block for wisdom. It is powerfully linked to the formation and recall of memories. As long as we don’t go into panic, fear or pessimism, stress activates our ability to achieve peak performance. This capacity complicates our lives dramatically. The mind is so powerful that we can set off a stress response just by imagining ourselves in a threatening situation. In other words, we can think ourselves into a frenzy. And, conversely, we can also act ourselves out of this frenzy. Just as the mind can affect the body, the body can affect the mind. The simple act of taking a deep breath and smiling produces a calming effect.
What’s gotten lost amid all the usual self-help advice is that stressful challenges are what allow us to grow and learn. They help us rise to the occasion, making us more physically and mentally robust. What doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger. As long as stress is not too severe and our neurons have time to recover, our mental machinery is destined.