Stress Can Actually Save Your Life

Did you know that we may actually benefit from stress? We can actually thrive on stress? That’s right, our body actually likes to adapt to stressful environments.

OK, I know what you may be thinking…that there is no way stress is good (as everyone says it is bad) and I must of snapped finally. But there is actually a naturally built-in powerful stress-response feedback system (say that 5 times fast) within us that will in turn provide positive benefits. Another fancy word for that process is “hormesis”.

Small amounts of negative stressors can actually generate an opposite positive response in organisms

Hormesis Hormesis (from Greek hórmēsis “rapid motion, eagerness,” from ancient Greek hormáein “to set in motion, impel, urge on”) is the term for generally-favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A pollutant or toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses as in large doses: from Wikipedia

You can see by the graph that we can actually have good things come from small stressors. The key word being “small” or “short”.

There is a HUGE difference between that and “large” or “chronic”….as you can see on the chart, more is not better and soon enough things will take a turn for the worse. But having little stressors in our lives will actually help us to survive longer it seems.

Thrive on Some Stress

Newsweek just recently did a good story on this entitled “Who Says Stress is Bad for You” from their magazine published Feb 23rd, 2009. Below are a few good outtakes from that story:

Sure, stress can be bad for you, especially if you react to it with anger or depression or by downing five glasses of Scotch. But what’s often overlooked is a common-sense counterpoint: in some circumstances, it can be good for you, too. It’s right there in basic-psychology textbooks. As Spencer Rathus puts it in “Psychology: Concepts and Connections,” “some stress is healthy and necessary to keep us alert and occupied.” Yet that’s not the theme that’s been coming out of science for the past few years. “The public has gotten such a uniform message that stress is always harmful,” says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. “And that’s too bad, because most people do their best under mild to moderate stress.”

The strong do survive the tougher times, so get mentally stronger!

The mentally strong do survive the most stressful times and come out on top!

The stress response is the body’s hormonal reaction to danger, uncertainty or change evolved to help us survive, and if we learn how to keep it from overrunning our lives, it still can. In the short term, it can energize us, “revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle,” says Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA. In the long term, stress can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about. A little of it can prepare us for a lot later on, making us more resilient.

Herein lies a problem. A lot of us tend to flip the stress-hormone switch to “on” and leave it there. At some point, the neurons get tired of being primed, and positive effects become negative ones. The result is the same decline in health that Selye’s rats suffered. Neurons shrivel and stop communicating with each other, and brain tissue shrinks in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which play roles in learning, memory and rational thought. “Acutely, stress helps us remember some things better,” says neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University. “Chronically, it makes us worse at remembering other things, and it impairs our mental flexibility.”

So you see, being under short periods of stress can actually make us more productive and attentive! I can attest to this in my own life. I actually found out long ago my production on anything is best when I am under (short term) pressure. Doing things with no sense of urgency never got me anywhere, but a little added pressure and things do get done. Again for this to be healthy long term there has to be some balance, as these stressors need to be short and not chronic.

Apply the Same Rules to Exercise

We can take the same lessons into our exercise also (from the same Newsweek article referenced above):

For all of the science’s shortfalls, there’s animal research that suggests why something that should lower stress can actually cause stress if it’s done in the wrong spirit. In a classic study, scientists put two rats in a cage, each of them locked in a running wheel. The first rat could exercise whenever he liked. The second was yoked to the first, forced to run when his counterpart did. Exercise, like meditation, usually tamps down stress and encourages neuron growth, and indeed, the first rat’s brain bloomed with new cells. The second rat, however, lost brain cells. He was doing something that should have been good for his brain, but he lacked one crucial factor: control. He could not determine his own “workout” schedule, so he didn’t perceive it as exercise. Instead, he experienced it as a literal rat race.

Moral of the story, go enjoy your exercise!

Don’t get so obsessed with it and see it as a task. If you do not enjoy whatever you do for exercise, STOP doing it! Go do somthing else! There are plenty of ways to get your exercise in, so find what you actually WANT to do! (not have to)

Also remember that exercise is a stress to the body as well, one we can adapt to. BUT if you do too much of it, don’t expect “more is better” to lead to additional health and wellness…as if the stressors are too high, then you will just create a negative response long term. I see this the most in people going “cardio crazy”, and why I continually say that aerobics should not be the priority for weight loss.

Eating and Stress

Lastly we can see this model of hormesis working with how we eat. If you eat plenty (especially excess) all the time, you are not going to express much stress to the body (except perhaps just excess stress on the digestive system and oxidative damage from it).

We know that brief periods of under-eating is part of our ancestral patterns of feast-famine that our bodies were built on to survive…as you can see in just one of the many studies that prove the benefits of intermittent fasting / feeding:

“The present findings demonstrate the beneficial effects of IF on cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to stress. IF rats exhibited reductions in resting BP and HR, and decreases in plasma levels of glucose and insulin. Because the risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke increase with increasing BP and glucose and insulin levels, our findings suggested the possibility that IF can reduce the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.”

Source: Intermittent Food Deprivation Improves Cardiovascular and Neuroendocrine Responses to Stress in Rats (J. Nutr. 133:1921-1929, June 2003)

So there you have it, we thrive on short bits of stress. We work our best when under a little pressure. We are healthier when we stress our body into adapting and making it more resistant for the future.

It’s our lack of control of the stress over ourselves (mostly mentally) that can cause the big danger in our lives. Times are tough, nothing is easy…but it shouldn’t have to be. Most of us are not going to move to a monastery on a mountain-top to meditate full time, so we better learn how to deal with what we have going on. You don’t have to run away from things, just learn how to handle and control it. Keep your head, realize you have full control to take action in life and then just be happy one moment/action at a time.

Learn to use short times of stress to make you stronger, and you may just live longer because of it (while others who are not able to control them, take themselves into a negative downward spiral).

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