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Stress can take its toll on your emotional wellbeing, not to mention your health, but your cognitive wellness will thank you for it. This is according to a new study, published in the online journal eLife, which says that stress, apparently, boosts your brain power.
It’s a well established fact that chronic stress increases your risk of a heart attack and compromises your immune system, but scientists have discovered that, when short-lived, stress primes your brain for improved performance, boosting your memory. This is based on studies in rats, in which the researchers found that brief, yet still significant, stressful events caused the rats’ brain stem cells to turn into new nerve cells. When these matured two weeks later, the rats’ mental performance had improved.
According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not. Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance. I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.’
Yet previous research has shown that chronic stress can elevate your levels of stress hormones which, in turn, suppresses this new neuron production and impairs your memory. Aside from this, it’s known that elevated levels of these hormones increase your risk of obesity, heart disease and depression. However, Dr Kaufer said that less is known about the effects of acute stress, and studies have been conflicting. She noted that her study shows that if these hormone levels are raised briefly, they boost memory, but the nerve cells need time to develop first.
Dr Kaufer explained, ‘In terms of survival, the nerve cell proliferation doesn’t help you immediately after the stress, because it takes time for the cells to become mature, functioning neurons, but in the natural environment, where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat.’ She added, ‘I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one: Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.’