When your body is exposed to something harmful, finding it beneficial seems illogical. However, there are convincing proof – according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley, that moderate or non-persistent stress can develop memory and enhance performance. It’s almost as if a part of your brain that is responsible for stress was a muscle that atrophies if you do not use it. This idea finds its continuation in our immune system. Scientific research with a catchy title “Psychoneuroendocrinology,” showed that a small level of stress brings more benefits than harm.
How exactly does it work?
Success in life requires connections – strong neural connections. In fact, we need flexible neural connections, because today we need not just to learn, but to retrain. Significant personality changes rarely occur on their own. As a rule, their source is stress. “Illiterate in 21’st century are not those who can’t read and write, but those who do not know how to learn and retrain”. (c) Alvin Toffler
Many Japanese firms rotate staff and teach them new specialties every three to five years. It is much more difficult to retrain than to learn. With a long occupation with the same task, makes the neural connections controlling these processes sufficiently stronger. Sounds like it’s a good thing? In fact this is not so. It has been proved that the brain, capable of more effective training, has the flexibility and ability to rebuild the neural connections on the fly in order to assimilate new knowledge – it is called high neuroplasticity. Excessive “rigidity” of neural paths is associated with poor learning abilities.
Our brain is a kind of matrix, consisting of nodes and connections that can easily change. The learning brain is very dynamic, neural modules break off ties with the old nodes and find new pathways and new nodes to interconnect. Stress causes a decrease in the number of neural connections without the death of neurons. Of course, often this is bad, but sometimes this is fertile soil for change. Reducing the number of links leads to the formation of a “free field”.
Do you remember oriental films where an old wise teacher puts a student in a state of stress and only then begins training? Why is he doing this? The goal is to use stress to weaken the habitual grasp and create a “field for change.” This is a well-known phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth”. Stress reduces neuroplasticity and the number of neural connections. But simultaneously it is clearing the neural field for the formation of new neural connections that increase our adaptability and learning ability. Of course, it is better to study in the comfort zone, but the only way to “unlearn and relearn” is to leave the comfort zone and clear the way for new pathways to form with stress.
How to transform stress into productivity
Reconcile with stress. Stress is inevitable. If you do not have it, you are a rare exception. The first step in dealing with stress is to recognize its existence in your life. Psychologists at Harvard Business Review suggest recalling situations where you were most successful and performed tasks at the highest level. Were you motivated by stress? In most cases, the answer is “yes.” It shows us that stress is not always a negative feeling, if you treat it right.
Take the stress as a side effect of the fact that you are expanding your abilities, testing yourself, going beyond the usual. Shawn Achor, an expert in positive psychology, is confident that our brain’s performance improves when we transform the challenge into something positive. When we are optimistic and focused and not worried, our brain is able to expand, which allows it to function faster and more productively.
You can achieve this if you accustom the brain to see stress as a byproduct of success, not a source of fear. It’s like the gym or sport training: no one likes to sweat or feel pain, but it’s part of the training process. The next time you conquer the intellectual peak, think of stress as a “sweat” of your mind.
Use stress – it is not fatal. Quite the contrary, at the dawn of humanity stress served cave people for protection and survival. Many things that helped our ancestors survive thousands of years ago are still useful in the modern world. Alisha and Thomas Crum found that “stress hormones” cause the growth and release of chemicals in the body that restore cells, synthesize protein and enhance immunity. Thus, stress makes the body even stronger and healthier than it was before.
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