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“The bad outcomes of stress are pretty clear and not new,” said Assaf Oshri, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
“But there's less information about the effects of more limited stress,” Oshri said in a university news release. “Our findings show that low to moderate levels of perceived stress were associated with elevated working memory neural activation, resulting in better mental performance.”
Working memory is the short-term information you use everyday for things like remembering a phone number or recalling directions on how to get someplace.
For the study, the researchers analyzed MRI scans from the Human Connectome Project, a project sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Scans came from more than 1,000 people with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Those who reported having low or moderate stress levels had increased activity in the parts of the brain that involve working memory.
Meanwhile, those who reported high stress had a decline in those areas, the findings showed.
The research team assessed perceived stress levels through questions like these: “In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?” and “In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?”
The investigators also asked participants if they felt they had a meaningful life, and about the availability of friend-based support.
To assess working memory, participants were shown — and asked to recall — a series of images.
The researchers analyzed MRIs of the participants' brains as they completed the tasks to assess neural activation in different parts of the brain.
Chronic bad stress can change brain structure, leading to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter, the study authors noted. The latter is involved in muscle control, decision-making, self-control and emotional regulation.
Conversely, previous studies by Oshri's team have shown that low or moderate stress can help build resilience and reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial behaviors.
The study participants who reported more support from family or friends also appeared better able to cope with low to moderate stress levels in a healthy manner.
“You need to have the right resources to be strengthened by adversity and stress,” Oshri said. “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,” Oshri said.
The findings were published in the November issue of Neuropsychologia.
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has more on stress.
SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, Nov. 22, 2022
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