Ice baths, HIIT classes and breathing techniques… it turns out there’s a method to the intense de-stressing habits we use.
There’s a clear reason why we’ve all turned to meditation, journaling and walking in nature: these stress-busting activities have been proven to make us feel better. But it turns out that it’s stress-inducing activities we might need to be practising in order to fight back against the overwhelming world we live in.
At least, that’s the idea behind ‘hormetic stress’ – the principle of exposing yourself to short and intense bursts of stress in order to reduce overall tension.
The practices of interest include HIIT, cryotherapy and saunas – things that have long been touted for helping people feel more alert, happy and calm but without a lot of scientific backing. Now, though, there’s research going into how and why hormetic stress can make us feel better – whether that’s burpeeing or exposing yourself to freezing temperatures.
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Dr Elissa Epel, director of the aging, metabolism and emotion center at the University of California, is one of the key scientists researching the benefits of hormetic stress. She recently told the Wall Street Journal that practices like HIIT “create short-term spikes of biological stress followed by recovery, ease and deep restoration and that is otherwise hard to get”.
According to the WSJ: “These short periods of stress shock our systems at the cellular and molecular level, challenging our bodies to adapt to tough conditions and restore equilibrium.”
In a 2020 paper on hormetic stress, Dr Epel defined hormesis as the process of cells adapting to mild or moderate stressors to protect an organism for a short while from future stressors and may improve the physiological state of that organism. She concluded that they can be attained from certain lifestyle behaviours, including intense exercise and temperature exposure but also eating certain phytochemicals from foods and breathing practices that lead to ‘intermittent hypoxia’ (a shortage of oxygen).
Notably, chronic stress is different from hormetic stress. Long-term elevated cortisol levels can lead us to live in a state of ‘flight or fight mode’ which has a knock-on impact on our health, ageing and resilience. “Brief intermittent, low dose stressors can lead to positive biological responses, improving resistance to damage… In contrast, a high dose and chronic exposure can override these mechanisms,” writes Dr Epel. She calls this toxic stress, which “includes traumatic or ongoing adversity for months on end, and the psychological responses – chronic high perceived stress, burnout, or depression”.
Layering too many stress procedures on top of pre-existing stress may not be advisable, as Epel’s colleague Dr Kenneth R Pelletier, clinical professor of medicine and of psychiatry at UCSF, recently told the Financial Times, “If you are under great pressure and you add in too much intense exercise, it can be dangerous. You need to look at the whole pattern” of your physiology.
We’ll no doubt hear more information about how, when and why hormetic stress helps us adapt as Dr Epel and her team continue with their research. For now, start small – maybe by simply turning your shower to cold.
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