These days, stress gets a pretty bad rap — and for good reason. Stress has been linked to increased risk for everything from anxiety and memory loss to cardiovascular disease and asthma.
But not all stress is created equal.
It turns out that there are two kinds of stress — distress (the bad kind) and eustress (the kind associated with adaptation and growth). And learning how to cultivate the right kind of stress might be the key to navigating this complex and stressful world.
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger
Eustress is any stress that causes a beneficial effect. A simple example is going to the gym.
When you lift weights or go for a run your muscles get tired and tear a little bit. It’s why you’re sore the next day. But this stress also stimulates your muscles to grow back stronger. And that means you’re ready to handle more weight or go for a longer run.
The right kind of stress can be good for you because of our bodies’ amazing ability to adapt.
But the key to remember about eustress is that it only works in low doses. Chronic stress is another thing altogether.
Before we can leverage the power of eustress to upgrade our lives, it’s important to understand what it is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.
How stress works
There’s a big difference between physical, mental, and emotional stress. Stress can also vary in length and intensity, and the end results can vary from person to person.
Just being alive on this planet is fundamentally stressful (especially lately). Some researchers even claim that we only exist today because of perfectly stressful conditions that helped shape our species.
So despite the recent push by wellness and lifestyle brands to get you to “de-stress”, not only can’t you de-stress but you probably shouldn’t.
We experience a range of emotions for a reason. They all motivate appropriate responses that make us uniquely human. But the type and duration of the stress you experience matters a lot.
Two types of stress: acute vs. chronic stress
Most stress falls into one of two categories: acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress is short-term stress caused by a specific event. Someone jumps out and scares you, or you realize you’ve left your wallet at the office. You yell or go back to look for your wallet.
The point is, acute stress happens in short bursts. And we can recover from the trauma of the event after the threat is over. We’re good at handling acute stress.
But chronic stress? Not so much.
When people say they’re “stressed out,” they’re talking about chronic stress. That’s because chronic stress lingers.
It’s always in the background, even if you’re not always aware of it all the time. If you have 50 tabs open right now and hundreds of unread emails, you’re experiencing some chronic stress right now.
What’s interesting is that acute stress can become chronic stress when little things pile up.
An unresolved fight with a partner becomes a bigger relationship problem. Eating fast food becomes your go-to dinner. Missing a deadline at work makes you anxious around your boss.
And that’s the biggest difference between eustress and distress — “good” stress is almost always acute while “bad” stress never goes away.
When stress is temporary, we can deal with it and grow and adapt as a result. But chronic stress only grinds you down.
How good stress works
Stress is an important biological function. You actually need it to stay alive.
When you experience acute stress, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. You release adrenaline and cortisol and your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing all increase to deal with the threat.
You know this as the “fight-or-flight” response.
Thanks to this stress response, we can be ready for almost anything life can throw at us. But there are limits.
A little cortisol goes a long way
Too much cortisol has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive issues, depression, and anxiety. But the right amount of cortisol releases dopamine. And dopamine affects motivation, focus, and even memory.
Cortisol is why we love things like roller coasters and scary movies. It makes us feel more alive. Like every moment is important.
To illustrate the benefits of cortisol, researchers gave participants either a placebo, 20mg, or 40mg of cortisol and gave them a list of words to memorize. The group who received 20mg of cortisol performed the best.
Increases in cortisol can also make us more friendly.
Despite what you learned in high school biology, our bodies don’t always leap straight to “fight-or-flight.” There’s actually a gray area known as “tend-and-befriend” where context-dependent stress can cause us to seek out our social groups for mutual defense.
A 2019 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology (say that 10 times fast) illustrated this phenomenon by putting one group of participants through stress-inducing tasks such as public speaking and verbal math.
Researchers measured prosocial behaviors, like trust and sharing, and found that the stressed group displayed much higher levels of prosocial behaviors compared to a control group.
We see this on display in real life when communities band together in the wake of natural disasters.
Rebecca Solnit focuses on our counterintuitive reaction to stress and how we act in emergencies in her book, Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster:
It’s tempting to ask why if you fed your neighbors during the time of the earthquake and fire, you didn’t do so before or after.Rebecca Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell
The answer is (at least partly), stress.
How we frame stress also matters.
Consider a scenario where you’re about to speak in front of a large crowd of people. Your palms are sweaty, your knees are weak, and your arms are heavy (hopefully you passed on mom’s spaghetti).
Your heart rate may increase, and you might feel a little jittery. Some people might describe this feeling as anxiety. Others might call it excitement. But how you perceive and label stress can profoundly impact how you respond to it.
The chronic stress of working 80-hours a week can lead to severe mental and physical illness. But the acute stress of an upcoming deadline can help you get things done. It’s all in how you frame it, and whether you perceive that stress as a passing fad — not the rest of your life.
The power of stress
There’s no denying that stress is powerful. We turn into part-time superheroes who can lift a car or rush into a burning building when things get stressful.
But we can only handle so much stress.
The right amount of stress spurs us to change and adapt. It can make us better. Too much stress, too often, can grind us down.
And odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re experiencing more of the latter.
Are we more stressed than ever?
We say we’re stressed, but are we really?
As strange as it is to say, one of the reasons modern life can seem so stressful is because we don’t have enough stress in our lives. At least, not the right kind of stress.
In fact, you could argue that life today has become too easy, at least for many of us.
In a lot of ways, someone with a crappy job and a studio apartment is far better off than the richest king from just a few hundred years ago.
Most of us have indoor plumbing, cheap and easy access to food, clean water, and advanced medicine (even if it’s expensive). We also have the accumulated knowledge of human history at our fingertips 24/7.
Life can feel hard, but staying alive has never been easier for most people most of the time. And that’s created a different kind of problem.
The problem isn’t that we’re too stressed. It’s that we have the wrong kind of stress. We don’t spend our days reacting to acute stressors. We try to avoid being consumed by chronic ones.
War is looming, inflation is rising, the planet is warming, plastic is in your food, and your student loan debt never gets smaller.
Our stress has become chronic, but intractable. And we’re not well equipped to handle it.
That’s why adding stress back in the form of eustress is so important — it allows us to adapt and become more resilient.
Here’s how to add a little of the right kind of stress to your life.
How to create (the right kind) of stress
Movement is baked into our DNA. Unfortunately, we’ve spent the last few thousand years trying to make life easier. Technological innovation is great, but that convenience comes at a cost.
Because physical activity adds the acute stress that our cells depend on.
Physical activity inflicts damage to our cells. That stimulates protective and restorative mechanisms. And those help us build stronger muscles and bones, and a better cardiovascular system.
Exertion is healthy. And we need to find ways to reintroduce it back into our daily lives. Luckily, you don’t have to run a marathon to get the benefits of physical stress.
Recent research has shown that taking a walk, going for a short run, or just jumping, kneeling, squatting, climbing, swimming, and lifting heavy things throughout the day can have remarkable benefits.
Make movement and play a larger part of your day.
Get outside and do it with others if you can. Move often and vary the intensity. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Humans have been dealing with big temperature swings for, well… ever. But today, we lose it if someone nudges the thermostat in our climate-controlled homes.
Being too hot or too cold for too long can be lethal. But exposure to extreme temperatures for short amounts of time can be extremely beneficial.
Native cultures around the world have been intentionally getting hot and cold for centuries. Most notably, Finnish people are well known for going back and forth between their famous saunas and frigid bodies of water. And they do it for a simple reason:
It makes them feel good. And now we know why.
Heat stress triggers a cascade of benefits for long-term physical and mental health. A large-scale study in Finland found a dose-dependent correlation between sauna duration and frequency and all-cause mortality.
Researchers found that men who used the sauna two to three times per week were 27% less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes than men who didn’t. Additionally, men who used the sauna four to seven times per week were 50% less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes. Frequent sauna users were also found to be 40% less likely to die prematurely from any cause.
Heat stress can make us more sensitive to endorphins through the production of a neuropeptide called dynorphins. When we’re hot, dynorphins get released to help cool us down. And while these cooling dynorphins make us feel unpleasant in the short term (they’re the opposite of endorphins), they actually cause the production of more endorphin receptor sites.
So in the long run, you’re more sensitive to endorphins, which can lead to improved mood.
On the flip side, stress induced by cold exposure has similar benefits to heat exposure, but through different mechanisms.
Cold stress causes a robust increase in norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that helps aid in attention, focus, and vigilance. Even something as simple as submerging yourself in 40°F water for 20 seconds can increase norepinephrine by 300%.
(I said simple, not fun).
Norepinephrine also causes us to produce new mitochondria in our fat and muscle tissue. And mitochondria, as we all remember from high school biology somehow, is the powerhouse of the cell. As you can guess, there’s not really a downside to having more mitochondria.
More mitochondria in fat tissue specifically lead to increases in brown fat, which improves metabolism. In the muscles, dense mitochondria lead to more effective use of oxygen and increase aerobic capacity.
Both heat and cold exposure have profound impacts on mood, focus, cardiovascular health, inflammation, and longevity. You can do one or the other, but utilizing both makes for a potent cocktail of health benefits.
Things like saunas, cold plunges, and cryotherapy chambers are great because they’re easily controllable. But you can always use simpler methods. Take a hot bath or a cold shower. Get outside on hot and cold days. Open a window at night to let the cold air in. Go surfing if you live near the coast!
If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you know this type of stress well. Anytime we go somewhere for the first time or learn something new, we introduce mild stress.
You know that exhaustion you feel after trying to speak a different language all day? That’s acute stress.
When we do something for the first time, we don’t have neural pathways laid down in the brain for how to act, and that can be uncomfortable.
Call it fear of the unknown.
But studies suggest that exposure to novel stress can improve cognitive function and may delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
All it takes is getting out of our comfort zone. Go somewhere you’ve never been, drive without GPS, eat food you don’t normally eat, or try a new sport.
It might be scary at first, but this type of stress is ultimately the spice of life.
Eating is one of the most fundamentally stressful activities we engage in, especially plant foods.
Plants want to survive like any living thing. But since they can’t fight back or run away from threats, they’ve developed a different defense mechanism. Most plants create chemical compounds called phytochemicals to stop insects and other pests from eating too much of them. And they’re pretty toxic.
Caffeine is basically a pesticide. The only reason it doesn’t kill you is because you’re way bigger than a bug.
When we eat phytochemicals (in small doses) they induce a mild cellular stress response that teaches our bodies how to defend themselves.
And they’re a great way to wake up in the morning.
The benefits of stress
Chronic stress can be a killer. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid all stressful situations. Not only is that boring life, it’s a less healthy one.
By building healthy habits that inject more of the right kind of stress into our lives, we can avoid the hazards of chronic stress, stimulate growth, and push our bodies and minds to fully experience everything that life has to offer, even the not so fun parts.
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