Not all stress is bad for you.
In fact, research continues to support the idea that certain kinds of mild stress can be beneficial to your health and well-being in a myriad of complex ways.
It turns out your grandmother might have been right all along— if it doesn’t kill you, it could make you stronger.
Now, this effect, known in biology as the hormetic effect, is the result of your body’s overcompensation to mild stress.
The most well-known example is from lifting heavy weights. Not only does your body repair the micro muscle tears from the trauma of the exercise, it builds back those muscle fibers a little stronger and denser than they were before—leading to an overall increase in size and strength.
The Dose Matters
The problem with stress is when the dose is too strong, or if the stressor becomes chronic. For example, if you do serious weight lifting without proper recovery, your performance will quickly deteriorate and the overtraining will suppress your immune system.
Likewise, if you try to increase the amount of weight you lift too quickly, your tendons and ligaments may not have time to adapt, and you risk serious injury.
The key is in the dose. You want the stressor to be relatively mild with plenty of time for recovery between episodes.
In the rest of this article, I’ll share nine examples of the hormetic effect in everyday activities. By adding the right dose of stress to your life, you will be helping yourself to grow stronger, more resilient, and more fit to face the day.
Of course, you’ll want to check with your doctor before making any drastic changes to your lifestyle.
9 Examples of the Hormetic Effect
Sun Exposure: Sunlight is often given a bad rap. But in fact, deficiency in vitamin D—most of which we get from the sun—is a major worldwide health problem. Sensible sun exposure is linked to lower levels of cardiovascular disease and protection against a number of cancer types. Of course, too much radiation from the sun puts you at an elevated risk of skin cancer, so it’s important to use common sense and protect your skin during the hottest parts of the day.
Intermittent Fasting: There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that occasional food deprivation (between 12 and 24 hours at a time) provides a host of metabolic benefits. The mild stress of being hungry is good for us in ways that chronic starvation clearly isn’t. As an added bonus, breaking a fast can make even the simplest meal taste like a world-class dining experience.
Saunas: There is now compelling evidence that regular sauna use increases human lifespan. Once again, the hormetic effect explains how the body is able to adapt to short, frequent bouts of intense heat—and, in fact, overcompensate by growing stronger as exposure is gradually intensified.
Cold Showers: Another acute stressor that turns out to be good for us is cold exposure. Various types of cold water therapies have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and lower inflammation throughout the body. A simple place to start experimenting is with cold showers. Surprisingly, many people report a feeling similar to a “runner’s high” after spending at least 5 to 10 minutes in cold water.
Intense Exercise: We know that exercise produces free radicals, raises our blood pressure, and causes oxidative stress—so why are we still advised to do it for our health? The simple answer is, of course, the hormetic effect. Each of these stress indicators is temporarily raised during the course of intense exercise, but our body, in an effort to maintain homeostasis, adapts in such a way that makes us fitter and more metabolically flexible for the future.
Being Social: For many people, being more social with strangers and more vulnerable in existing relationships is a challenge. We desire the rewards of deeper friendship, but too often we choose the undemanding comfort of our screens instead. Studies have shown, however, that the short-term stress of putting ourselves out there helps us to build a support network that then acts as a protective buffer against chronic stress—which is the kind of stress we really need to worry about.
Learning New Things: Because of the plasticity of the human brain, it has the ability to adapt and change as a result of novel experiences. Research shows that doing mentally challenging activities, such as pursuing more education, is linked to a reduced chance of developing dementia. In fact, any cognitively difficult task will cause your brain to compensate with new growth and slow down cognitive decline. Learning a second language appears to be a particularly great intervention if you’re looking to take up a new challenge.
Living With Less: Consumerism is a mindset that is driven primarily by comfort and convenience. Whenever a “problem” arises—such as boredom, hard work, or discomfort of any kind—the consumerist solution is to buy another widget or add another subscription to make life easier. But what if all this easy living was actually making life harder in the long run? If the theory of hormetic stressors is correct, then we actually need limits, constraints, and the challenge of solving our own problems in order to truly grow as humans. It’s no surprise that those who embrace a simpler lifestyle end up changing their lives in more ways than they initially expected.
Facing Your Fears: The basic concept of exposure therapy is simple—the fastest way to overcome any fear is to voluntarily face it head on. Typically, a gradual approach works best, and it’s important to allow yourself to feel the fear and sit with it. If you continue to expose yourself to these mild stressors without retreating, eventually your brain will acclimate to the discomfort and you will feel stronger for having faced your fear. Exposure therapy is so effective, in fact, that it’s considered a gold standard for the treatment of PTSD and response to trauma.
“It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones and win against better rivals. Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor, inverse hormesis, absence of challenge, degrades the best of the best.” ~Nassim Taleb