Mild Levels of Stress During the Holidays Might Be Good for You

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Mild Levels of Stress During the Holidays Might Be Good for You

Jim Windell


                       As we anticipate the December and early January holidays, most of us will be spending more time with our families. More time hanging out with our relatives can be highly enjoyable – and more stressful.

            What should our goal be as we have family parties and get-togethers? For some of us, the main goal will be to reduce stress. For those of us who might like to sidestep conflict, it might be to avoid all stress. But should that be the goal?

            That question was answered in a recent research project from the University of Georgia.

            Of course, we all know that the bad outcomes of stress are really very clear and not at all new. For instance, there is considerable evidence that constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. This, in turn, leads to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter – which is involved in muscle control, decision-making, self-control, emotional regulation and more. Furthermore, it is well established that chronic stress can make people more susceptible to a variety of illnesses ranging from nausea and migraine headaches to high blood pressure and heart disease. 

            But what if the stress is limited – say, the stress is occasional, perhaps only during holidays when you are around your family, or when stress is low or moderate? There’s less information about the effects of more limited stress, says Assaf Oshri, lead author of a study on stress and an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.

           In previous research, Oshri and his colleagues demonstrated that low to moderate stress levels could help individuals build resilience and reduce their risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial behaviors. Those initial studies also showed that limited bouts of stress can help people learn how to cope in future stressful situations. However, the most recent study builds upon their previous work, providing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that shows how low to moderate stress can make the parts of the brain that control working memory more effectively do their job. 

          Oshri and his associates analyzed MRI scans from the Human Connectome Project of more than 1,000 people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Human Connectome Project aims to provide insight into how the human brain functions. The results of the analysis suggest that individuals who reported low to moderate stress levels had increased activity in the parts of the brain that involve working memory. Participants who said they experienced chronic high levels of stress showed a decline in those areas. 

          To assess perceived stress levels, participants answered questions about how frequently they experienced certain thoughts or feelings. For example, “In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?” and “In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?” This scale has proven an effective measure in a variety of other studies.

          The researchers also examined participants’ social networks using a variety of measures, including how individuals felt about their own ability to handle unexpected events, how satisfied they were that their lives matter and are meaningful and the availability of friend-based support in their social networks. 

          In looking at working memory, participants were presented with a series of four types of images of things like tools and individuals’ faces and later asked to recall whether they were the same photos they were shown before. The researchers then analyzed MRIs of the participants’ brains as they completed the tasks to assess neural activation in different parts of the brain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants who said they had more support from their families and friends appeared more able to cope with low to moderate stress levels in a healthy manner. 

          “You need to have the right resources to be strengthened by adversity and stress,” Oshri said. “For some people, being exposed to adversity is a good thing. But for others, maybe not. It’s possible that you can sustain more stress if you have a supportive community or family.”

          So, as it turns out, if you experience low to moderate stress during the holidays, that may actually be beneficial for you. However, once your stress levels go above moderate levels and becomes constant, that stress becomes toxic. Perhaps, therefore, it’s best be with your relatives for short doses.


          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Oshri, A., Cui, Z., Owens, M. M., Carvalho, C. A., & Sweet, L. (2022). Low-to-moderate level of perceived stress strengthens working memory: Testing the hormesis hypothesis through neural activation. Neuropsychologia, 176, 108354.

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