Stress has been labeled as being responsible or involved in more than 90% of all diseases known to man. In fact, most doctors visits are somehow related to stress in people lives. As a result, most of the conversation around stress nowadays revolves around the negative effects of stress.
This is absolutely true.
Stress leads to an increased likelihood of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes as well as accelerated aging.(1) These negative connections, however, refer to long term, chronic stress.
SHORT TERM STRESS can be good. No, seriously.
Positive short term stress (EUSTRESS) promotes a process in our bodies called HORMESIS.
Hormesis is defined as “a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.”
What that basically means is "what doesn't kill you will make you stronger." As long as it doesn't keep happening.
Below is a graph that helps you visual learners get the idea.
Studies with mice have shown that when mice are placed in water tanks and have to swim to survive, they develop greater cardiovascular strength. This reduces their likelihood of drowning.
Another way to understand this concept is exercise.
When you exercise, you are exerting a short term physical stressor to your body. The a exercise is tearing muscle, forcing the body to start an inflammatory process to repair the muscle tears, but then it lays down more muscle tissue so that you are less likely to damage it next time.
This concept all works with chemical stressors, like alcohol.
Studies have shown that people who ingest small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis have better liver function than those who consume no alcohol at all. (2) . Woohoo!
Even intermittent sleep deprivation a.k.a. sleep fasting has been shown to be a beneficial treatment for depression (3).
Utilizing hormesis to your advantage
As noted above, short term stress can be useful if you have a strategy. But remember one word - moderation. We have a tendency to think more is better. But like we clearly identified, more stress is NOT better.
1. physical health
For your physical health, use difficult workouts once a week to drive improved performance. Examples: a steeper or slightly longer hike, wind sprints at the last minute of your run, HIIT (high intensity interval training).
2. Nutritionally, start with intermittent fasting. A 12 hour fast is a good place to begin. After your last meal of the evening, don't eat again until 12 hours have past. Example: last meal at 6pm, don't eat again until 6am the following morning.
3. Emotionally, take on small challenges. Make it simple to start. Example: Start a conversation with someone at work or school that you don't really know. Ask for help on something you are struggling with. These ideas may not sound difficult but they are small mental challenges.
Just to be clear, a good balance of healthy foods, sleep and exercise will provide a foundation for great health.
But sometimes you need to have a little EUSTRESS in your life to push you to be even stronger.
So get a good workout, stay up a little late tonight with a nice glass of wine and let your mind and body do the work of using good stress to help you be your best. Cheers!