German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “what does not kill me, makes me stronger,” and I know you’re familiar with that quote, if not because of Nietzsche, because of belting out the song “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson. This quote like others (“no pain, no gain” anyone?) has pervaded the health and fitness industry through the many inspirational social media posts and hashtags (and gym tank tops of course), but did you know there’s real scientific merit behind it?
In an ideal world, no one experiences any hardship in life, yet you’d be hardpressed to find a single person you know who has not dealt with some sort of stress, anxiety, or adversity.
And if you’re reading this thinking “Hmm... I’ve had no stress in my life at all,” consider for a moment the 73% of people who regularly experience emotional symptoms caused by stress (1), or better yet, the 77% of people who experience physical symptoms caused by stress (2).
Quite the epidemic wouldn’t you say?
Yet, in this article, I’d like to explore the idea that not all stress is “made” the same. Here’s where that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” quote comes in again. According to certain studies, some stress, in certain amounts, can actually make you a stronger person... both mentally and physically.
To put a name to this, let’s talk about the biological truth, “hormesis.” Sure, we could get into the whole scientific description (here’s a link if you’d like that), but hormesis simply means that a low dose of chemical, environmental, or physical stress can make you better able to handle that same stress in the future. It’s kind of like not taking the flu shot and instead allowing your body to experience the flu. This exposure makes your body better able to fight it off in the future. [Not to mention, medical experts agree that protecting yourself from the flu vaccine is more important than the flu itself... but that’s another article for another day (3)!]
Throughout our life, we’re exposed to a number of stressors such as a big work presentation, the traffic jam that makes you miss the first 15 minutes of your daughter's ballet recital, or something traumatic like the sudden death of a loved one. In response to these stressors, our body releases the stress hormone known as cortisol (4). In some situations, another hormone, adrenaline may be released. You may also find your body responds physically to help you deal with the situation like an increased heart rate, fast reflexes, or increased strength.
Essential to our survival, we do need a certain amount of stress to thrive in this world, but as I mentioned before, not all stress is the same. There are two sides of the stress coin; Eustress and Distress.
Eustress, the positive stress, is what allows us to perform well. It’s often short-lived, is exciting, motivates, and helps us focus. Despite the stress that looms ahead, we feel like we can overcome it, and will overcome it; and a better life is waiting just around the corner. Moving across the country, starting a new job, having a baby, learning a new language, and retiring are all examples of eustress.
On the opposite side of eustress is distress... which you may be a bit more familiar with. This is the type of stress that tends to linger and is chronic. Distress can be both short and long-term and can lead to anxiety, depression, mood swings, poor concentration, and many (often debilitating) physical symptoms.
Knowing the types of stress you can experience in life, let’s take a look at how you can use this knowledge to your advantage moving forward so that you can live a more balanced life.
How Eustress Makes us Mentally Tougher and Even More Empathetic to Others (If You Let It)
Although eustress is a positive stress, the power to harness it all lies in which belief you hold regarding stress. In a study conducted in the United States with over 186 million adults, those who believed that stress was harmful to their health experienced more mental and physical symptoms of stress than those who believed it was actually helpful (5).
The positive perception of stress allows one to develop a mindset that is equipped with the ability to accept and face challenges head-on, rather than invoking the fight or flight response. Over time, this acceptance of challenge (stress), turns into resilience, which in the fewest of words empowers one to reach their fullest potential, despite what challenges may come.
In the words of Psychologist Kelly McGoniga, “you create the biology of courage” when you look at physical symptoms such as a racing heart as a “call for action” instead of the opposite, a call for apprehension. Watch McGonigal’s full Ted Talk on How To Make Stress Your Friend, it’s well worth the 14 minutes.
How Exposure to Physical and Biological Challenges Makes us More Resilient and Capable to Fight off Disease, Sickness and Weakness
Exposure to eustress can be beneficial in many ways, psychologically and physically. As human beings, we are naturally more inclined to manifesting a life that includes some amount of stress. Having errands to run, activities to do, and work projects that are piling up may seem like a recipe for disaster; but it’s these daily stimuli that help us avoid a life of boredom; and instead, makes our lives fulfilling. Of course, creating (art, music, etc), and helping others also goes a long way in living a fulfilled life.
In the work environment, for example, you may think creating a relaxing atmosphere would have employees more relaxed and working better, but as a 2018 study in the Journal of Neuropsychology & Stress Management found; when there is no challenge in the workplace, boredom is likely to set in amongst employees (6). This boredom may lead to dissatisfaction where the employees feel frustrated with not only the work but themselves too. Continuing in the cycle, this frustration then turns into low self-esteem and depression which bleeds into other areas of their life as well. However, in the same study, workplaces that supported an environment of well-managed eustress, saw peak performance from their employees.
If you’ve ever sat in a stadium or on the couch with friends watching a sports match, you’ve likely felt that feeling of “we are one” or togetherness it brings. Competitive sports are a great example of how eustress not only can benefit athletes, but also the fans. When athletes choose to embrace the pain (distress) in a game as enjoyment (eustress), their experience of the sport changes. We often see this when the underdogs are able to rally together as a team and instead of simply thinking of winning or losing, but rather of being present in the moment and enjoying the game, doing the best they can. This belief of being part of something bigger (team vs me), allows the athlete to become a master over the stressors and overcome the challenges. It also amplifies what 'Blue Zone' communities all over the world are already doing; fostering strong bonds through community and connection with one another.
A fairly common form of eustress you may be well aware of is dietary restriction or better known as, fasting. This is when we willingly decide to restrict calories consumed for a period of time such as 12-36 hours (sometimes more) in order to harness our bodies magnificent abilities to lower insulin, and blood glucose; which is promising for weight loss and preventing diabetes (7). Another study found that the stress placed on the body by not eating activates the body's ability to upregulate anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defenses (8).
Associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, has been conducting studies for over 10 years between the link of stress hormones and the immune system. In a 2012 study he led, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, Dhabhar found that when exposed to short-term stress, immune-cell redistribution occurred within a 2 hour period, enhancing postoperative recovery. Regarding the findings of this study, Dhabhar said “So nature uses the brain, the organ most capable of detecting an approaching challenge, to signal that detection to the rest of the body by directing the release of stress hormones. Without them, a lion couldn’t kill, and an impala couldn’t escape.” (9) It goes without saying of course, that a strong immune system can help protect you against a wide array of illnesses, and diseases.
Knowing When Eustress Becomes Distress and When the Hormetic Effect is No Longer Being Tapped Into
When our body is put through acute stress (eustress), a complex yet coordinated stress response is activated and our body responds as needed in order to help us respond to the situation at hand. These reactions when short-term are perfectly healthy and beneficial to our health, but when it becomes a sustained reaction in response to chronic stress, problems may arise.
Just as driving your car without ever servicing it can lead to early wear and breakdown, the same can happen to your body. Early onset aging (wrinkles, lines, sagging, etc), raised blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, weakened immune system, cancer, ulcers, and obesity are just a few ways long-term stress (distress) can affect the body.
Identifying when eustress is becoming distress is an important skill you can master for your physical and mental health. External situations (death of a loved one, loss of a job, money problems, legal problems, sleep problems, injury) may be the cause of distress, but recognizing the feelings internally is what can ultimately help you tap back into the hormetic effect.
Here are the internal signs to watch for:
You should also watch for the following behaviors:
Promoting Balance: Tips on How to Prevent Eustress from Becoming Distress
Managing stress in a proactive manner is something many have yet to “master” if you will. It’s not enough to simply sit in a bubble bath and listen to Sade (although who doesn’t love doing that?) once stress sets in. Approaching stress from a holistic point of view means preparing your mind and body to cope with stress, well before it creeps in.
Below are a few methods you can use to promote balance in your life so that when stress does get you, you’re prepared.
The practice of yoga and controlled breathing, specifically Sudarshana Kriya Yoga (SKY), has long been recommended as a low-risk and low-cost tool for stress-related disorders. One study published in the International Journal of Yoga, showed that “SKY can be a beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.” (10) Tree pose (Eka pada pranamasana) is an excellent yoga pose for improving concentraion and helping balance the mind and body; as well as opening the third eye (Ajna Chakra) which helps to balance out the hormone system in the body. (11) Ujjayi breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and lions breath are three more breathing techniques to help calm and reduce stress.
Stress-eating affects 38% of American adults who overeat in response to stressful situations (12). And it doesn’t help that when those stress-eaters do reach for a mouthful of food, it’s usually junk food. This food is not only junk for your waistline, but it’s also junk for your mind too. One study showed that chronically stressed women who turned to foods high in trans fat and sugar experienced oxidative damage and insulin resistance (13). After the initial “high” of eating fast food wears off, mood swings, and signs of irritability manifest. And to think, that’s on top of the stress! Instead, turn to whole, non-processed foods that can impact your mood positively, stabilize blood sugar and reduce tension. A few of the best hormetic foods include green tea, curcumin (turmeric), and cruciferous vegetables. (14). According to John Dempster, a Toronto based Naturopathic Doctor, he has “yet to find a patient NOT have a nutrient deficiency,” which for those experiencing stress could mean a deficit in B vitamins, amino acids, and certain minerals (i.e. magnesium and zinc). It’s best to visit with a local ND to get your blood test which will show your nutrient deficiencies (15). Furthermore, in lieu of fasting, a concept called Xenohormesis could be used to mimic the effects of dietary restriction (16).
Unless you’ve been living off-grid for the past 20-30 years, it’s hard to notice how increasingly sensationalist the media and news has become. It doesn’t help that these days a swipe or tap on our smart phones is all it takes to find the latest stories, and even engage in a war of response to it with people from 3000 miles away in seconds. Perpetually viewing the news however has negative implications far more serious than simply wasting your precious time that can be spent doing more meaningful things. Fear mongering, scare tactics, and outright lies used by news journalists have people not only sadder and more anxious, but also more depressed about their own lives. In his book “The News” author Alain de Botton examines typical news story outlines and gives his own reasoning as to why shunning the news is the most sensible thing to do. He comments that news organizations are, “institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line.” Sounds a bit like social-media-society, in general, doesn’t it?
We have all heard that laughter is the best medicine at some point in our lives, yet how many of us actually put it into practice? An overwhelmingly positive sensation, laughter is a non-invasive, non-pharmacological method of boosting ones mental health. In a 2015 study, it was found that laughter “decreases serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, growth hormone, and 3,4-dihydrophenylacetic acid (a major dopamine catabolite), indicating a reversal of the stress response.” (17) Find a funny movie, book, or get together with a few friends for a night of games and laughs!
Most of us had those few years in adolescence where we ran straight to our room, escaping the “bore” or “chore” (however you saw it at that time) of having to hang out with our family after school. Recent studies, however, are showing that this isolation can hinder our ability to function in social settings later in adulthood. Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, created a study that simulated those very isolated years of adolescence in teens with a group of isolated mice. When returned to the group after isolation, the mice still exhibited the “abnormal behaviours” associated to mental illness and his team set out to simulate social isolation associated with the difficult years of adolescence in human teens. They found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered 'abnormal behaviors' that continued even when returned to the group. They found that the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood. The "tend-and-befriend" response is the exact opposite to "fight-or-flight". The"tend-and-befriend" response or fostering closer bonds with other people (friends, family, partner, etc), increase oxytocin (healthy molecule) and decreases cortisol. So, spend more face-to-face with those you love, and less face-to-screen time with those you likely will never meet in life (ahem, social media)!
Just like forming bonds with friends and family, forming a bond and being connected to our Source allows us to achieve an even greater benefit to humanity and leave a lasting legacy of love, kindness and peace to our fellow man. Prayer, meditation, volunteering and service to others, gratitude and appreciation all have a profound effect on health and happiness which is conducive to longevity and a sound mind and body. Proverbs 17:22 NKJV says “A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries the bones.” It is well known that emotions and feelings, which determine our level and type of stress, do have an effect on our health. Saying your morning prayers, keeping a gratitude journal or focusing on helping someone else through a challenging situation can all help you through your own challenges, alleviate your own stress and make you resilient all because you helped make someone else resilient. This is the concept of reaping what you sow or Karma. Even if you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, taking the focus off of self, attending to the needs of others and being thankful for all the good things in your life, big and small, can do wonders for stress relief and turn distress into eustress. You’ll be thankful you did.