By Sherkiya Wedgeworth

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The bright side to work stress

What are scientists learning from filming crying babies when they get their vaccination shots that may actually help us during the workday? 

Answer: Short-term stress — the flight or fight response — actually strengthens our immune system.

Not to be confused with long-term or chronic stress, which lasts several weeks to months and can have the opposite effect and weaken the immune system, researchers are examining the effects of the short-term, day-to-day stressors we encounter that last just a few minutes or for several hours.

Using the immediate reactions of infants who just received a shot from a nurse as an example (smiling and cooing followed by wailing), previous research has found that exposure to minor stress before being vaccinated boosts the immune system and improves the efficacy of the vaccine.

Building on that research, Firdaus Dhabhar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress & Health, in a new study, found that when lab rats were exposed to mild stress (gently confining them over a two-hour period to induce stress), their immune system was also heightened, rather than suppressed as many would expect.

In the new study, Dhabhar and his team were able identify three key immune boosting hormones that were activated during the stress period.

"[T]he investigators were able to show that the massive redistribution of immune cells throughout the body was orchestrated by three hormones released by the adrenal glands, in different amounts and at different times, in response to the stress-inducing event. These hormones are the brain’s call-to-arms to the rest of the body," Dhabhar said in a report.

“The beneficial effects of short-term stress make sense because the fight-or-flight stress response is nature’s fundamental survival mechanism," Dhabhar said in an interview about the findings. "Without this response, a lion has no chance of catching a gazelle and eating to live another day. Without this same response, the gazelle has no chance of escape.”  

“During a fight-or-flight response, organs like the skin and underlying tissue are likely to be damaged (a wound from an attack) by a stressor (a predator); enhancing immune function in these organs during times of stress would ensure better protection,” he added.

His goal is to one day be able to manipulate stress-hormone levels to improve patients’ recovery from surgery or wounds or their responses to vaccines, and even help cancer patients.

“Benefits of short-term stress might also translate to better mental or physical performance, especially under conditions where chronic stress is low and the individual is trained or practiced in the task at hand,” Dhabhar said.

This also means that the day-to-day stresses we experiences at work may actually be good for us. Go figure.

Posted by Sherkiya Wedgeworth on May 19, 2015 at 2:01 PM

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