These days we are constantly being told to minimise our stress and do everything we can to prevent burnout. These warnings may be well intended but they render invisible the positive effects of stress. All humans need to overcome a certain amount of struggle every single day. Adopting a mindset that stress should be avoided is absolutist and can actually do more harm than good. Read below and find out why we should embrace stressful situations and how doing so can be beneficial to our health.
What Is Stress?
The word ‘stress’ has a few definitions. The World Health Organisation defines it as a type of change that causes physical, psychological or emotional strain. Basically it is our body’s natural response to anything that requires urgent attention. Although it is a given that everyone will experience stress at some point in their lives, our response or method of coping with it will vary from person to person. Events that trigger a stress response in one individual might not affect someone else the same way. This is because our ability to cope with stress is influenced by our upbringing, genetics, social and economic circumstances.
The good news is that our automatic stress response is not set in stone. You can train yourself to be more resilient and view stress as beneficial rather than detrimental. Studies show that a little bit of stress actually improves health markers and can increase longevity. For example, a short session in the sauna can be hugely beneficial but if we stay in there too long we will die. Being out of our comfort zone in the short term leads to more resilience in the long term. Think about how vaccines work. We expose our bodies to small doses of a virus in order to make our immune systems stronger. The same thing applies in other areas of life. When you experience positive effects from short term exposure to a stressor, this is known as ‘hormesis’.
Examples Of Hormesis
Periodical exposure to environmental stressors can have a hormetic effect. Some examples include exercise, dietary restriction, exposure to chemicals, heat and cold therapy. Scientists like Dr Rhonda Patrick and Alia Crum do a lot of research on the benefits of stress and have found some interesting results. Rhonda in particular has looked at the positive effects of sauna and fasting. Being hot or hungry might not feel great in the moment but the temporary discomfort leads to physical benefits later on. Studies show that fasting is a mild stressor that comes with health benefits when done for short periods of time. This is why some people rave about the benefits of intermittent fasting. The same applies to heat therapy. Time spent in the sauna can reduce blood pressure and chronic pain. If taken to the extreme, high temperatures and calorie restriction might kill us. However, in moderate doses they can extend our lifespan, improve our immunity and also make us feel good. Basically the dose makes the poison. Intentionally going without food for a short period or spending time in a very hot or cold room will put your body out of its comfort zone. Doing this transiently can make you more resilient and better equipped to deal with stress in other areas of life. As they say, get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Your Mindset Matters
As stated above, not everyone responds to a stressor the same way. Research from Alia Crum proves that your perspective on stress in general can influence your hormetic response. She proved this with a study on hotel cleaning ladies who had very active jobs. Half of them were told they didn’t meet Surgeon General’s recommended daily exercise requirements and the other half were told that their jobs made them more active than the average person. Four weeks later, the group who were praised for their activity levels had lower body fat, blood pressure and weight even though their daily behaviours hadn’t changed at all. This study established that, through the placebo effect, your thoughts can positively influence your physical health. Both groups of hotel workers did the same amount of daily exercise. However the group who perceived their daily exercise as being beneficial actually experienced better health outcomes. If you perceive a stressor to be good for you, it actually will be. So ask yourself, do you perceive stressful situations to be debilitating or view them as a challenge to overcome? The way you perceive stress affects your body’s physiological response to difficult situations.
How To Improve Your Stress Response
We know that the beliefs we have around stress affect our physical health. Some people hold a crippling view of stress while others appreciate its enhancing properties. One study found that students who view stress as enhancing released moderate amounts of cortisol when faced with a public speaking task. The other students who believed stress is debilitating experienced a dysregulated cortisol response, either producing too little or too much. Another study concluded that those working in the financial industry who viewed stress as debilitating also reported lower levels of health. This is evidence that our thoughts can impact our body’s physiological response to external situations.
The evolutionary reason we experience a stress response is to improve our physiological and mental functioning in order to survive. Our fight or flight system was designed to keep us alive in dangerous situations. When we are in a stressed state, our body increases production of cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine for a vital reason. These chemicals improve our focus, alertness and physical capabilities. This enables us to make good decisions and be able to fight back if we are under threat. Being in a state of stress also triggers the release of anabolic hormones that can rebuild cells and improve immunity. Contrary to popular belief, experiencing a stress response to external stimuli can bring many physical benefits.
Rather than avoiding stress, we should view it as a source of empowerment or an opportunity to become more resilient. The expectation that stress is always bad for us is a commonly held assumption that can be altered. Through mindfulness, it is possible to challenge your core beliefs and view external stressors as beneficial rather than detrimental. Obviously chronic stress is not ideal but a bit of short term adrenaline can help us focus better and complete tasks quickly. Now that you know the benefits of stress, you will no longer feel the need to avoid things that you might have previously avoided. Stressful situations like public speaking, freezing cold temperatures and difficult workouts help us grow physically and mentally. Instead of avoiding, try to embrace them.
Remember the saying “pressure makes diamonds?” Without deadlines, we wouldn’t get things done. Without exercise, we wouldn’t improve our fitness and without experiencing a fever, we wouldn’t get over sickness. We need to experience hardship from time to time in order to improve. Stress is the key to a meaningful life. Rather than worrying about stress, we should be more concerned about not experiencing any at all. Try to do one thing everyday that scares you. The physiological and mental benefits will far outweigh the short term discomfort.