Stress and the brain: Study finds certain types of stress can benefit your mind

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FILE-A woman appears to be stressed as she sits in front of her computer. (Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Stress is a burden for many based on the mental and physical toll it can take, but a new study from the University of Georgia suggests that not all stress is necessarily bad and can even help your brain.

The study reveals that low to moderate stress levels can bolster brain function and build mental resilience, lowering the risk of mental health disorders like depression and antisocial behavior.

Assaf Oshri, a lead author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer for the University of Georgia, collaborated with three authors; two from UGA and one from Stanford University. 

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The researchers used data from the Human Connectome Project, a national project funded by the National Institutes of Health focusing on human brain functions. The project involved more than 1,200 young adults who were asked questions about their stress levels for the report.

Oshri explained to FOX Television Stations that participants in the UGA study went through surveys and neurocognitive tests.

Participants in the study answered questions about their feelings, including how often they felt upset about something and how they felt if they were unable to cope when tasked with doing something.

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Researchers compared the findings from the Human Connectome Project with the participants’ responses to tests evaluating anxious feelings, attention problems, and aggression.

“Our study shows that there are associations between lower levels of stress and cognitive benefits. How people think and how they remember,” Oshri said. “But certain levels of stress may lead to risk for antisocial behavior.”

“The mechanism we tested looks at how your brain reacts to lower levels of stress. Low to moderate levels of stress are associated with lower levels of mental health problems and improved cognitive function, which can apply to adults and kids. Not all stressors are a good thing, but some stress can help with building strength and resistance to future stress.”

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Oshri says the study shows that some stress can be related to positive outcomes because it could help someone cope and deal with any potential future stress.

“When you realize that stress is affecting your functioning, your well-being and mental health, it’s not good for you. If you’re able to respond, reorganize and cope, then it might be beneficial. There are individual differences in how much people can sustain stress. It depends on the resources, personality, the network you have to help you manage stress. We’re all different and we have different coping mechanisms to help us deal with stress.”

While Oshri maintains that managing your stress levels to avoid it becoming “overwhelming or toxic” takes precedence, he says the best way to relieve stress is through physical activities like exercise to “refuel your tank.”

This story was reported from Washington, D.C.