In this blog post, I’ll tell you why a very specific type of stress called “hormesis” can be good. But to understand why I’ll first need to talk about unhealthy stress.
Everyone knows unhealthy stress: Chronic stress is devastating to your health. But how to understand “chronic stress” – isn’t all stress different?
From a scientific perspective, stress is always exemplified by a “fight, flight, freeze, or faint” response.
To break that statement down I’ll take a quick detour into evolution:
Millions of years ago, when your human ancestors came across a predator, they basically had four options to overcome that danger:
1) Fight the predator by injuring or killing it.
2) Flee from the predator while hoping it won’t catch you.
3) Freeze in petrification because you realized it’s already too late to fight or flee (i.e. the deer in the headlights look).
4) Faint, as a protective mechanism to avoid consciously experiencing physical and emotional harm.
The goal of that process – and thus stress – is to protect you from danger. But the error in human thinking today is envisioning stress as the only extant option for coping with the world.
Let me explain…
Those four options I’ve listed above create an illusion of choice. All four options are bad outcomes.
You’ll falsely think: “whatever the problem I face in life, I can either fight, flight, freeze, or faint”
That’s sure doesn’t seem like a great prospect, right?
There’s a fifth alternative, which is the “play and stay” physiology. “Play and stay” is diametrically opposed to “fight, flight, freeze, or faint”.
An easy way to visualize the difference between the previous four states and “play and stay” is to imagine spending some time in a flow state.
Everyone has been there. Yes, even you:
Remember that time when you were totally immersed in any activity?
Doesn’t matter which activity: perhaps you’re skateboarding, surfing, making music, writing, dancing, painting, playing with your pet, or …
The possibilities are endless.
That physiology is called “flow state” and it’s associated with the “play and stay” process in your body.
During that physiology, totally different neurotransmitters – or brain signaling compounds – are active than during fight, flight, freeze or faint.
The former is characterized by high levels of dopamine and serotonin, making you motivated and happy. In the latter stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can be predominant (the fighting stage), or acetylcholine can make you withdraw.
Even digestion differs at a very fundamental level between these states. If you’re at rest or if you’re in a flow state, lots of blood is allocated towards digesting the food in your stomach and intestines.
During fight, flight, freeze, or faint, however, blood moves away from your organs towards the periphery – preparing you for the struggle of life and death.
The immune system becomes incapacitated under stress – your body allocates resources towards immediate survival at the cost of your long-term health.
You’ll even start breathing heavily and carbohydrates stored in the liver are released into the bloodstream, to further increases your chances for survival.
Sure, sometimes it is very appropriate to fight or to faint. If you’re really under threat, you’d better fight.
But such encounters are few and far between in the modern world. You’ll thus want to save energy for the times you really need it, and not spend it on illusory “fights’.
So what’s chronic stress, as opposed to having just one acute upheaval of stress?
Under chronic stress, the fight, flight, freeze or faint response is continually activated.
What should be in an incident has now become a habit. Let’s consider how by going through four examples:
1) Your colleague calls you at 10 in the evening with a request that you deliver a product 10 AM next morning. He’s done this many times before, and you’re kindly told him to make these requests earlier so that you don’t have to work at night. This time you (subconsiously) decide to fight: you fly off the handle and tell him you’ve had enough. You think you were assertive in controlled, but in reality, he noticed the and despair anger in your voice.
(Stay and play alternative solution: calmly but firmly tell your colleague that you’re helping as soon as you really can. Then relax and go to sleep happily ever after. The next day, plan a conversation with him to talk about his behavior.)
2) You’ve been working deadlines for months. Now your boss requests you prepare an important presentation in 2 days time. The presentation is essential to keep a high-paying client to stick around. You’ve had enough and decide to numb yourself with a pizza followed with a few glasses of wine. Nothing serious, but enough to help you flee the situation for a while. Of course, had you not consumed the pizza and wine, you would be in a better position to handle the problem–but alas.
(Stay and play alternative: take a good bath and call your friend, meditate for half an hour, and you’ll get the insight on how to handle the presentation.)
3) Imagine: You’re the life of the party and you’re such a people’s person. In some situations though, you find it very hard to defend yourself. Your dad may have been shouting at you when he was angry when you were young. And if your boss does the same thing to you today, you’ll just become silent and let it happen. Of course, you know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help but freeze.
(Stay and play alternative: join kickboxing class so that you’ll teach yourself to be assertive. Even though kickboxing is a physical activity, your newfound confidence helps you be better with words.)
4) You’ve got one major fear: public speaking. In college, you could get away with getting your teaches to give you alternative assignments, calling in sick, and having other students present for you. You’re great at your job, and your supervisor is continually praising you, even in front of other colleagues. But this time, he asks: “Megan, why don’t you present our team’s findings to the board of directors after the break?” The confronting thoughts are too much to handle – you faint.
(Stay and play alternative: gradual exposure will help you. First, become perfectly relax. Then give a 10-second presentation to a trusted colleague. Ten a 20-second one, building up from there. Eventually, you’ll learn.)
The even bigger picture? Chronic stress is simply the situations in which you experience one of these four situations over and over again.
Stay and play is an inactivity of these chronic stress processes. Let me give an example as well:
Remember a time at which you were extremely relaxed and nonetheless still got shit done. Maybe you were visiting a beautiful Mexican beach after a work-related trip.
Being perfectly calm after a good meal, your boss sends you an e-mail that a client has requested a report next afternoon. No worries though: you go to sleep, wake up refreshed at 7 AM, and start typing. That 5,000-word report that normally takes you several days is finished with lightning speed. Two hours before the deadline, you nonchalantly send out the e-mail and continue your stay in paradise.
Your best bet in life is to stay in that stay and play physiology as much as possible while avoiding fight, flight, freeze, and faint as whenever you can.
I know, easier said than done…
Many strategies can help you avoid the more base stress response in the human body. Mindfulness meditation is a great example.
With mindfulness, you focus on something in your immediate environment such as a candle or your breath. Thoughts and emotions will pop up because that’s just what your mind does. But you – as part of the mindfulness exercise – always return your attention back to that breath or candle.
Over time, you’ll also start to notice that you are not your thoughts and emotions. Instead, thoughts and emotions are what appears on that which you already are. You thus learn to detach from unproductive thoughts and emotions.
That fight and flight response no longer grips you the way it used to. Many other strategies exist as well to lower the grip of stress, such as spending time with friends and keeping a gratefulness journal, upgrading your sleep quality, and using a sauna.
So you may think: “I’ve now achieved the pinnacle of stress management. I’ll never stress again”
Not so fast!
That’s the conclusion is where many people go wrong.
You should never ever live a 100% stress-free life. Such a life is dull and unexciting. In fact, you need the right kind of stress in your life.
Remember that “hormesis” word I mentioned in the beginning? You’re now in a position to understand that word:
You’ve probably observed some kids play: they climb trees, explore areas they’ve never been before, run as hard as they can, and collapse at night due to exhaustion.
Kids are not defensive in maintaining their energy. And by the next morning, their gas tank seems to be fully refueled, so that once again they’ll ride that bike faster or try that new trick in the playground.
Children are our perfect teacher in that instance. In fact, there’s a deep primordial explanation of why children’s strategy is perfect.
Let me explain…
Every cell in your human body contains hundreds if not thousands of “mitochondria”. Mitochondria are the “energy-producing factories” of your cells.
Certain types of stress – the right kinds of stress – help upgrade the quantity and quality of these mitochondria. With more and bigger mitochondria, your body’s capacity to generate energy dramatically improves.
The stress that correctly challenges your mitochondria is called “hormesis“.
To the correct type of stress, mitochondria become stronger. Hormesis is the holy grail in keeping your mitochondria big, plentiful, and healthy.
You may think: “why do mitochondria matter anyway”
Well, with aging the number and quality of mitochondria that you have goes down.
But with intermittent stress – short bursts of stress that demand a lot of your mitochondria – that aging process is slowed down and even reversed.
How to implement hormesis into your life?
The better your mitochondria function, the more resilient you become against chronic stress.
I’ve thus come full circle.
Chronic psychological stress will eventually undermine the health of your body. But making that body healthier also increases your tolerance to avoid excessive psychological stress.
The body and mind are thus interrelated…
Some of the excess energy you have on a daily basis should, therefore, be re-invested in temporarily stressing your body the right way. Hormesis is that right way, and in times of need, your fuel tank will be a lot bigger.
A bigger fuel tank (i.e. healthier mitochondria) thus mediate between psychological stress and health. Now that this insight is grasped, let’s consider the 30,000-yard view on this topic:
You were born an adventurer. You stayed and played for the first years of your life.
And yet, somewhere along the way, whether it was in your teens, twenties, or thirties, your outlook on the world changed.
Challenges, such as a presentation, an important test, or a new horizon were no longer conceived of as excitement but as a threat. Psychological stress was born at that moment, in the form of a fight, flight, freeze or faint response.
Once that response persisted for longer, the stress became chronic. And the more the stress became chronic, the more your stay and play physiology moved to the background.
It’s time to habituate ourselves away from a stress mindset today. Stress does not make you productive, healthy, or happy.
Quite the opposite…
Take a step back first. By taking a step back you’re creating new space to challenge yourself again. And by integrating the right kind of stress into your life – hormesis – you’re able to build your capacity to deal with setbacks over time.
The mindset necessary to apply such hormetic stressors – such as taking a cold shower, engaging in exercise, or fasting overnight – is that of an adventurous child.
Children come on this planet to teach, not to learn. With a child’s attitude, stress becomes child’s play, both figuratively and literally. And you’ll regain that youthful innocent attitude towards challenges, ready to conquer the day gain.
Just like that 14-year old who wanted to become a doctor or pilot.
Remember: the right kind of stress is the fountain of eternal youth…