It is said that your dog is most likely happier than you are. My family has an elderly beagle back home in Indiana, and chances are that as I write this amidst a busy work day – with programs to coordinate, classes to teach, clients to train, and offices to call – he is likely sound asleep, soaking in the warm midday sunshine. Later today, as I battle through rush hour traffic, he will chow down ferociously on food that is simply dropped into his bowl. After that, he may spend some time barking at the geese that land in the field behind our yard before falling back into a deep sleep come sundown. He experiences stress, of course – those geese really grind his gears – but within a few short minutes after they fly off, he could care less whether they were ever there at all. One could argue that your dog is very skilled at handling stress, while you and I, on the other hand, are not. An inability to effectively manage stress can cause great dissatisfaction in our lives.
I initially understood stressors as two distinct and separate types: the first is acute stress, also known as the “fight-or-flight response” that forces one to make quick decisions about the situation at hand; the second is chronic stress, stressors that are not just one-time events, but ongoing in one’s life.
Over time, though, I have come to view these two definitions of stressors along a continuum. Within this frame of mind, chronic stress is born out of acute stress that goes unresolved in one’s life. Another way to say it is that we allow chronic stress to develop because we choose to suppress our feelings related to the situation rather than find some way to release the energy from our mind and body.
Most of what is written about stress management could be considered “yin” approaches to decreasing stress – strategies one can employ to calm down and relax. Strategies such as deep breathing, meditation, spending time with loved ones, listening to music, or reading all fall into these categories. These are solid strategies to help cope with stress, but just as everything in our universe is a balance of the yin and the yang energies, so too can stress management be viewed from a different angle. One must not only find ways to decrease the amount of stress they perceive in life, but they must also learn to become more resilient to stress in the first place. The strategy discussed from here on is a yang-style approach to becoming more resilient to stress – a way to meet it head on, grab it by the horns and force it into weeping submission. The only thing it takes is the willingness to get a little uncomfortable for a short period of time.
Chemically speaking, hormesis is the phenomenon whereby the exposure to a known toxin in small doses prompts stimulatory effects in an organism, whereas larger doses of said toxin would be inhibitory and possibly lethal. The hypothesis is that low doses of toxins stimulate repair mechanisms in the body that fix the damage caused by the toxin, as well as clean up any low-level damage that may not have triggered a repair response before. A chemical example could be an immunotherapy, such as consuming locally-harvested honey to adapt to allergens in the environment. A large dose of allergens such as pollen or dust would provoke the immune system to attack, making one sneezy, itchy, watery, and stuffy. The small dose contained naturally within the honey, though, is just enough to help the immune system adapt to the allergen but not provoke an over-compensatory response. A vaccine could be another example.
The concept of hormesis can be applied to lifestyle as well. Purposeful exposure to acute stressors not only prompts the body to better handle the physical response to stress, but also hones the mental response to it. Essentially, the idea is to practice exposing oneself to stress, because the more something is purposefully practiced, whether it be a language, sport, or response, the better one can become at that task or ability.
What are some good examples of how to practice hormesis in one’s daily life? Physical exercise is a low-dose stressor to the body. Research shows that those who do not exercise have higher risks of both mortality and morbidity compared to those who do exercise. Additionally, those who exercise too often and too intensely (think marathon types) are shown to have similar rates of mortality and morbidity as those who do not exercise at all. There is a sweet spot in the middle that comes with a myriad of health benefits.
Exposure to sunshine is another example. Those who religiously slather on sunscreen and avoid the sun at all costs are shown to be deficient in Vitamin D, with no added protection from skin cancer. On the flip side are those who tan until their skin turns to leather and develop melanoma by age 25. Yet we know that moderate exposure to the sun ensures adequate Vitamin D levels, optimal synchronization of circadian rhythms, and a protective tan against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
One of my favorite strategies to practice hormesis is cold water therapy. Brief exposure to cold water (sub 65°F) is argued to increase alertness, circulation, and invigorate the mind. It has even been shown as a non-addictive and low-side-effect treatment for depression. This could be accomplished by either a cold shower or an ice bath. I have come to appreciate the nuances of both. Do not let George Costanza talk you out of trying this method, either.
A brain that has learned to cultivate resilience manages acute stressors much more effectively than one that has not. Rather than festering over a stressful event for hours after it occurs, the trained mind can learn to relax in the aftermath and mentally untangle from the dramatic web of stories that the fight-or-flight response invoked. Even on the spot, a trained mind can create mental space from the physical stress response and react more thoughtfully. This helps the resilient individual live a more mindful existence.
A wise professor defined it this way: “Worry is a thought, anxiety a feeling, and stress a response.” Stressors always begin as an acute event. It is the ruminating thoughts afterward, the mental examination of the event that causes worry, which triggers anxieties and fears, which in turn can invoke another stress response. It is in the handling of acute stressors that determines whether one will quickly recover or whether it will become a chronic cycle.
Our strategy must then be two-fold. Spend time with your wise old dog – let him teach you how to play, how to let go, and how to relax. Balance this approach with the implementation of hormesis to cultivate resilience for when you encounter stress in your daily life. Become intimately familiar with your stress response; learn how to manage the feelings and emotions associated with it. Whether through a bout of exercise, the rays of the hot sun, a skipped meal, or a shower so cold it leaves you gasping for air, you will become more resilient and feel what it truly means to be alive.
Note: While the preceding piece can certainly stand alone, it was written as a more authoritative follow-up to my original two-part series on stress management; part one titled Slow Down, part two titled Flow.