In a study from the University of Georgia, scientists found the holidays are a stressful time for many, but that may not be a bad thing when it comes to your brain functioning.
They found that low to moderate levels of stress improves working memory, the short-term information people use to complete everyday tasks like remembering someone’s phone number or recalling directions on how to get to a specific location.
The findings are specific to low to moderate stress. Once stress levels go above moderate levels and become constant, that stress becomes toxic.
Constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. It 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.
Chronic stress can also make people more susceptible to a variety of illnesses ranging from nausea and migraine headaches to high blood pressure and heart disease.
But the current findings show that low to moderate levels of perceived stress were associated with elevated working memory neural activation, resulting in better mental performance.
In previous research, the team 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.
That study also showed that limited bouts of stress can help people learn how to cope with future stressful situations.
The present study builds upon that 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 effective doing their job.
The researchers analyzed MRI scans from the Human Connectome Project of more than 1,000 people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
They found 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.
In addition, 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.
The team says people need to have the right resources to be strengthened by adversity and stress. 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.
If you care about mental health, please read studies that commonly used mental drugs may harm cognitive functions, and 6 daily habits to reduce stress & anxiety.
For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about a big cause of depression in middle-aged and older people, and results showing a drug that can reduce depression and suicidal thoughts.
The study was conducted by Assaf Oshri et al and published in Neuropsychologia.
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