Wide eyes and a gaped mouth. Your heart is racing and your breath picks up pace. You start to sweat as your body prepares…
You’re familiar with this feeling. Actually, we all are. These are the trademarks of stress. But for everything that’s happening on the surface, there is a rolling torrent of reactions happening inside. Our body is preparing for action: to fight or to flee.
Often we are taught that this stress is dangerous. After all, we know that stress kills. But stress has another truth…Stress cures. For all the suffering and struggle that stress can bring into our lives, at the same time it can bring health, peace, and even fulfillment. The trick is knowing how to find and use the right kind of stress.
What is stress?
“Stress is a perceived disconnect between a situation and our resources to deal with the situation. In other words, stress is a (real or imagined) threat that taxes our resources.”
This definition comes from a Psychology Today article about good and bad stress. I think this description is incredibly apt: The idea of stress as a response to something that is both costly to us and our bodies. But that little note in parentheses—"real or imagined”—is potentially a bigger part of the puzzle. Stress is being confronted by something that seems daunting. This explains why confidence as an attribute (or maybe a skill, depending on your perspective) is held in such high regard. If you’re confident that you can handle a challenge, then you’re far less likely to react negatively, or at least intensely.
Confidence is nice, but it requires a lot of knowledge that we very often don’t have or can’t reasonably obtain. If you’re confident, you are reasonably sure. Because we are human, “reasonably sure” is also reasonably unpredictable. So what’s better than confidence? What about courage? Stress is an essential ingredient for courage. In fact, courage without stress could very easily be defined as confidence…or arrogance, or just plain old ignorance—once again, depending on your perspective.
Stress is characteristically attached to the awareness of uncertainty. The stress response is the tool set nature has given us to deal with situations we aren’t quite sure we can handle. How much texture would life have without some pressure? Stress is also the catalyst for every single great story, factual or fictional, that has ever been told. Yet still, this response to the unknown is demonized with persistent vigor. This idea is illustrative in considering how often we misunderstand ourselves.
Why Stress Isn’t Always Bad [Or, Stress Is U-Shaped]
Stress is shaped like a U. Our sweet spot, the goldilocks zone, sits neatly at the bottom. On the left, we have too little stress. This is where all the systems that our DNA has so kindly spent millions of years evolving to help us cope with stress begin to accumulate dust and atrophy. On the right side of that U-shaped curve, we have the classic “portrait of a killer”: the high-level stress that is genuinely detrimental to long-term health. But it’s the dip right in the middle that holds the answers to goodness of stress.
What is good stress or eustress?
At a talk in Finalnd, Rhonda Patrick, PhD, articulated the single best definition of “good stress” that I have encountered:
“Good stress is a type of stress that is a short-term stressor on the body—something that is slightly stressful that activates all these genetic pathways that are hard encoded in our genes that are able to deal with stress.”
This is called hormesis (a much better search term than “good stress” or “eustress” if you’re in a googling kind of mood). Patrick proceeds to explain: “That tiny bit of short-term stressor ends up not only compensating for that stress but you end up having a net resilience effect.”
That “tiny bit of stress” can take many forms, but it is the single most substantial difference between someone who has to fend off stress, and someone who wields it with the deft hand of an expert.
How To Use Healthy Stress To Your Advantage
When you know that stress can be a good thing, you can use it to your advantage to cultivate a healthier body—both physically and mentally. With a little strategy, you can stress your body out just enough to reap the benefits and create a stronger you.
Stress Your Body With A Sauna
In the aforementioned talk, Dr. Patrick tells the story of her experience as a stressed—and subsequently unhealthy—PhD candidate. The mounting stress was reaching a boiling point when suddenly everything started getting easier. The only change? Daily usage of a sauna. Dr. Patrick explains that intentionally overheating your body releases something called dynorphin.
Dynorphin is responsible for that uncomfortable feeling of being too hot—that “I just want to get out of this heat” impulse. The feeling that grips you in the middle of summer and drives you towards the nearest beach or pitcher of cold beverage is prompted by dynorphin. But while you’re wondering why your ice cube tray wasn’t refilled, your brain is receiving a tune-up. You become more sensitive to endorphins. That means that the amount of “feel good” you get from anything that releases endorphins suddenly goes up. Try using a sauna 2-4 times a week for about 30 minutes to see results. Bonus? It can also help manage anxiety and depression.
Stress Your Body With Exercise
A significant form of good stress (and one of the things that gets those endorphins flowing) is, of course, exercise. Yup! I’m going to beat on this drum again because it’s important. Thinking about exercise as a stressor is actually a significant puzzle piece.
Obviously, we don’t really like being stressed, but it’s more than simple distaste. We are biologically engineered to avoid stress, whether helpful or harmful. Of course, exercise isn’t a super appealing thing to most people. Take running, for example. That is an energy expensive activity that was usually reserved for quickly moving towards food or away from being food. But it’s for that very reason that it is so important.
Our DNA decided to double down on the importance of running. When we get our blood pumping, some really interesting things happen. Obviously, we have our endorphins which help out with anxiety and depression, and just generally help temper our overall reactivity to stress. Think about your first kiss, for example. Pretty nervous probably? Or the first time you asked someone out? Or what about your first serious job interview? For most of us, it gets a little easier every time. You are desensitizing yourself. When you exercise, you’re essentially doing the same thing—but for every kind of stress. That, if nothing else, is pretty meaningful. Start as small as you need to, and work your way up to regular exercise. I started with literally one push up right before showering and went from there.
Stress Your Body With Hunger
Fasting, if done right, not only can, but possibly should be part of a wholly balanced and healthy life. A lot of people are likely to caution you or try to dissuade you from fasting. Candidly, it’s regarded as a bit weird. Fasting has some religious associations attached to it and in general not eating is regarded as not a great thing. The fact that “I’d like a snack” and “I’m starving” are used interchangeably might contribute to this. Counterintuitively, however, not eating is quite likely one of the best ways to avoid getting “hangry.”
Fasting actually stabilizes your blood sugar and lowers your insulin sensitivity. This does two things: First, being hungry becomes significantly less unpleasant. Second, your body actually processes the nutrients you do consume more effectively. Defining “hungry” as your body looking for more nutrients, this creates a cycle. Food is an absolutely wonderful thing, but it’s very easy to forget how much of our time we actually invest in food. Whether you’re cooking or making money that gets spent on having someone else cook for you, food is still a relatively time expensive affair.
Try a 24-hour fast or simply fast for an 8-hour window in the mornings (intermittent fasting). I personally started with a 10-hour window for eating. I loved not having to cook dinner and having more time to write in the evening. That made doing more infinitely easier.
One Last Note
All of things also vary significantly from person to person. I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet. Please do consult your doctor before getting too excited with any of this stuff and, as always, do your own research. Experimenting with something is always more exciting when you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.