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Stress

When Stress Is Good For You: The Hormesis Effect

You know stress can be a vice. Here is how to make it a virtue.

Key points

  • Stress is the among the best known concepts in psychology and among the most misunderstood.
  • In contrast to oversimplified stereotypes about stress, all life requires stress to function, grow, and survive.
  • Hormesis is a biological process explaining why the dose of stress, not stress itself, produces certain effects.
  • Hormesis explains why exercise, nutrition, mental study, and even many medicines can be either healthful or harmful.

If the world really had a supervillain, it would have to be stress. With all due respect to Thanos, The Joker, and Superman's archnemesis, Lex Luthor, none of these theatrical bad guys hold a candle to the daily villainy we suffer at the hands of stress.

Stress is literally everywhere. Traffic. Finances. Illness and injury. Bosses. Aging. Relationships. Deadlines. Even holidays. And the stakes of stress could hardly be higher. Disability and disease. Dependency. Divorce. Even death.

Is it a wonder, therefore, that stress has such an awful reputation? That we're on a seemingly endless cultural quest to eliminate stress and enable lives equivalent to lying on the beach or swaying in a hammock?

Look, if you hate stress, I get it. If you imagine the many sources of stress in your life and just want them to disappear, I know how you feel. Stress often feels bad and sometimes is bad. For just a few minutes, however, I'm asking you to give stress a second chance and consider a more nuanced perspective. This alternative stress perspective may not fit into a tidy black-and-white mental box like the conventional view, but it does have the potential to grant you a life filled with meaning, vitality, and amazing memories.

Hormesis and Stress

In the 16th century, the Swiss chemist and scientist, Paracelsus, summarized results from his experiments into his since immortalized expression: "The dose makes the poison." What Paracelsus meant, on one hand, is that even deadly toxins become dangerous to our bodies only in certain quantities. However, he also meant that even "healthy" substances such as oxygen and water also become dangerous in amounts either inadequate or excessive. The dose—in the form of amount, duration, or intensity—determines the healthful or harmful effect of a substance on us, not the substance itself (1). Yet what even Paracelsus himself didn't imagine at the time is how his proverb about chemical stress would eventually prove equally true about physical and emotional stress.

Paracelsus was referring to an anciently recognized (Roman emperors who supposedly employed hormesis techniques to inoculate themselves against assassination attempts by ingesting small doses of certain poisons. The same process allows modern drinkers to develop a tolerance to alcohol) biological process called hormesis(2). Technically, hormesis refers to a common biochemical pattern where a substance (vitamins or medicines) shows a beneficial effect at certain doses but negative effects at higher or lower doses (too much or too little iron, potassium, or vitamin A can be deadly).

The key to understanding how hormesis can make stress good for us, however, is appreciating that hormesis also involves a process of biological adaptation. At the right dose, stress induces changes in cells, hormones, neurons, organs, and nervous system function to produce increased skill, strength, health, immunity, or cognition.

Source: Image by Thomas Rutledge

The figure above provides examples across the good stress (hormetic stress) versus bad stress spectrum.

  • The hormesis process explains why sunlight can give you a tan or give you skin cancer.
  • Why exercise can put you in the hospital or put you in the Olympics.
  • Why cold water exposure can cause hypothermia or cure depressive symptoms.
  • Why starvation will kill us while intermittent fasting produces many health benefits.
  • Why nutrition quality can predispose metabolic diseases or promote optimal health.
  • Why a job can be a recipe for burnout or an enduring source of meaning and contribution.

The hormesis process demonstrates why we all need stress. Our life literally depends on it. Without stress, your mind, muscles, and immune system wither, your job and relationships grow stale, even your bones rapidly waste away. (Consider the dramatic bone among astronauts when they lose the daily stress of overcoming Earth's gravity.3)

On the other end of the spectrum, appreciate that the most skilled, strong, fit, and prosperous people in the world didn't acquire their abilities overnight or through inborn talent alone. They acquired them in large part through hormesis; a systematic process of progressive stress exposure that gradually produced remarkable results. Each of us possesses this hormetic potential. It is coded right into your DNA, among the greatest gifts of our ancestors. Yet benefiting from hormesis requires that we abandon the prevailing cultural meme that stress is uniformly bad for us or needs to be eliminated.

By adopting instead a strategic embrace of stress, we can become the version of ourselves we prefer and create the lifestyles and relationships we desire. And by collaborating to create a society maximizing good doses of stress while minimizing harmful doses, we can contribute to a culture where stress is more often viewed as a valuable tool for growth and improvement instead of an outcome of abuse and inequalities.

Summary

If you want an easy way to understand and apply hormesis to your life, remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Just like porridge, stress can be either too hot or too cold. Yet stress can be a great source of satisfaction when the temperature is just right.

References

1. Calabrese EJ. Hormesis: Path and Progression to Significance. Int J Mol Sci. 2018 Sep 21;19(10):2871. doi: 10.3390/ijms19102871.

2. Mattson MP. Hormesis defined. Ageing Res Rev. 2008 Jan;7(1):1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2007.08.007. Epub 2007 Dec 5.

3. Stavnichuk, M., Mikolajewicz, N., Corlett, T. et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of bone loss in space travelers. npj Microgravity 6, 13 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41526-020-0103-2

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