The stress test: Can stress ever be beneficial?

by Ian H Robertson

19 Jul 2017
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Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 5, pp. 163-176.

Abstract: The human brain needs an optimal amount of challenge in order to perform optimally. This is because challenge activates the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (NA) which, at optimal levels, facilitates good brain performance; in contrast, when levels of NA are either too low (sleepy, jaded, bored, mood low) or too high (stressed, anxiety, pressure), the brain underperforms because of the key neuromodulatory effect of noradrenaline. Moderate amounts of stress can actually increase performance and attention to such a ‘sweet spot’ and hence to higher levels of cognitive performance with resulting improved confidence. Stress arises when people perceive the demands made upon them to exceed their ability to cope with these demands. But this in turn depends upon appraisal of the stress and in particular whether the stressors are seen as challenges to be overcome or threats to be avoided. A ‘challenge’ mindset makes it easier for individuals to use adversity to attain this optimal zone of performance and build resilience. Furthermore, moderately stressful events in a person’s life have a number of potentially beneficial effects including emotional resilience, better chronic pain tolerance and even enhanced cognitive function.

Keywords: stress, anxiety, mood, attention, adversity, resilience, cognitive function, chronic pain.

Joint British Academy/British Psychological Society Lecture, read 22 September 2016 (video recording)

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