Stress can be good for body and mind, according to new research that found that changes in body chemistry and in behavior depended on how people viewed the nature of stress. It all depends on your attitude.

In studies on investment bankers and students, researchers said when people see stress as debilitating, their bodies don’t react as well as when they view stress as having positive effects. The work, by researchers at Columbia University, Yale University and other institutions, is expected to be published online in March in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“You could have tons of stress, but it’s the mindset about stress that matters,” said Alia Crum, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia and an author of the study.

Stress is usually portrayed as having negative health consequences. But it also can aid in boosting the immune system and in the speed of brain processing, even improving memory, previous research has shown.

Bruce McEwan, a professor of neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University in New York, who wasn’t involved with the new study, called it well done and its findings consistent with growing evidence on how view of stress matters. “I think we’re beginning to realize that what goes on in the brain – like our mindset – can have some real biological consequences,” he said.

Dr. Crum and her colleagues studied 300 investment bankers who were under stress since their company had just gone through a round of layoffs. The researchers sought to shift the mindset of one group to where they saw stress as debilitating, and another group’s mindset to where stress was seen as enhancing. They did this by showing the bankers videos over the course of a week that either showed someone meeting the challenge of stress – like a basketball player making a crucial shot – or bowing to it.

By the end of the week, those with a positive view reported fewer negative health symptoms, such as headaches and muscle tension, and better performance at work than the other group.

The researchers did another study with students where they measured a chemical associated with stress called cortisol. They found the amount of cortisol students produced depended on their view of stress. Those who viewed stress as potentially beneficial, and were more naturally keyed up, saw their cortisol levels go down, Dr. Crum said.

Source: Shirley Wang, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. edition, February 21, 2013.

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