Is Stress Really That Bad?
Nearly every human I know responds negatively to stress. In fact, most of us will do just about anything to avoid trials, tribulations, stress, troubles, roadblocks and any sort of stimulus that pulls us out of our comfort zones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the words, “why do bad things happen to good people?” I used to be one of those who echoed that same sentiment when I was going through rough patches, but then I started to notice something about myself. When I was in my comfort zone, I usually became complacent. For me, this equalled stagnation. Why would I change? Everything FELT good, comfortable and easy. Only when I fell on my face and had to re-evaluate my values and life, was I willing to change. You see pain serves a very noble purpose. It pushes us beyond what we think we can handle; it cracks us open; it brings us to our knees and molds us into someone stronger.
I remember when I went through my divorce, it was a bit of an ego death. Who I thought I was, what people thought of me and my life in general were all tested. I hit rock bottom, but something beautiful happened in that dark night of the soul. I was cracked open, and as wise philosopher Rumi says, this is where the light can enter. Only in a time of desperation and pain was I able to look through different lenses. I am now fully convinced that without that pain, I would not have seen the world from a different perspective that helped to change my entire career. Again, very few people transform without something painful to push them in that direction.
Stress becomes dangerous when its too much, we perceive it negatively, or it becomes chronic. It is all in our perspective and how we react to things. Chronic conditions occur because there is some sort of stressor, whether it be mental or physical, that is continual. This can lead to inflammation of the body or brain. And remember-inflammation is the heralding cause of all disease. However, the flip side of this argument is that acute stress and acute inflammation can give us new eyes, a new lease on life and push us in a direction we would’ve never entertained without the “bad” experience. Short lived stress is not necessarily a bad thing it seems after all. There is great wisdom to be gained if one is able to change perspective and see healthy stress as a challenge, puzzle to be solved, or a “push” that leads to growth. Which leads me to ask-Are there really “good” or “bad” experiences or is our perspective just off? And how do we gracefully deal with stress and then let it go so that it does not turn into a chronic problem?
Lessons from Science about Stress
And what does science say about stress? We can easily investigate the animal and plant world to see how stress can become a natural (and not necessarily bad) part of life.
For example, in the plant world they actually have a word for it-xenohormesis. Xenohormesis explains how plants undergoing ecological stress produce “extra nutritional constituents” that confer survival advantages upon the animals or humans that eat them. This is exactly what happened in the blue zones of the plant like Okinawa, Japan. The plants there were closer to the equator and had to make more prominent antioxidants and phytochemicals to protect themselves from the damage of the sun. This is one of the reasons why the population there lives longer.
Concerning animals, a study done by Kaufer, Kirby and their colleagues at UC Berkley Neuroscience Institute subjected rats to short lived stress. For them, immobilization in their cages for a few hours. This doubled the proliferation of new brain cells in area of the brain that retains memories. The rats even performed better on a memory test two weeks after the stressful event.
One of the simplest examples of positive stress in humans is exercise. Whether you love it or hate it, exercise makes us healthier and stronger. But it doesn’t do so through pleasure. No pain, no gain. Through sweat and tears, we build the bodies that we desire that promote longevity. This feat is accomplished through ACUTE STRESS-tearing muscle fibers when lifting weights, pushing our heart rates to build more cardiac muscle and production of lactic acid that makes us sore the next day. This acute stress makes us stronger in the long run and actually makes us live better.
Stress can also come in the form of heat or cold. But does it benefit our health too?
- The Importance of Heat Shock Proteins and Anti Aging
There is actually new research coming out on what heat can do for healing. (Cold temperatures place a similar stress on the body. For more info, check out my blog on cryotherapy). Saunas are now being shown to trigger the stress response in the body in a similar fashion as exercise. This is great news for those patients who have trouble physically or don’t have the luxury of being able to exercise. The concept is known as Hyperthermic Conditioning and now research has shown that it can affect everything from endurance to growth of new brain cells. In fact, studies are now showing increases in secretion of HGH, or human growth hormone, as well as activation of HSP, or heat shock proteins. HGH increases stamina, promotes longevity and is anti aging. Its levels drop off after age 30 and this is what leads to aging, so you can see how increasing this hormone is very important to overall health. HSP, or heat shock proteins, are also activated during heat exposure and stress. High heat serves a purpose, you see as it can denature or destroy proteins. This is beneficial as it kills off protein capsids of viruses but does not harm the body’s innate proteins due to none other than, HSP. This is HSP’s job-to prevent protein degradation in the body when it is exposed to high heat. They also have the ability to repair damaged DNA. This is why you should not immediately treat a fever until it is dangerously high-around 105 or so.
Take it from the well versed Dr. Rhonda Patrick,
“Heat shock proteins (or HSPs), as the name implies, are induced by heat and are a prime example of hormesis. Intermittent exposure to that induces a hermetic response (a protective stress response), which promotes the expression of a gene called heat shock factor 1 and subsequently HSPs involved in stress resistance. HSPs can prevent damage by directly scavenging free radicals and also by supporting cellular antioxidant capacity through its effects on maintaining glutathione. (Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant) HSPs can repair misfolded, damaged proteins thereby ensuring proteins have their proper structure and function.”
In one study, rats that were exposed to intermittent heat sessions had a HUGE expression of heat shock proteins that was associated with 30% more muscle regrowth compared to a control group. And the expression lasted for 48 hours after the heat exposure!
There is one specific HSP called HSP70 gene that is now associated with increased longevity, which suggests there may be anti aging benefits.
2. Heat Shock Proteins and Muscle Soreness
Hyperthermic conditioning has been shown to slow muscle atrophy during disuse, for example, if you broke your leg and couldn’t move around for a few weeks. Not only that, but studies now show that HSP and hyperthermia can prevent against muscle breakdown that can occur in up to 25% of patients on the cholesterol lowering statin drugs.
Many patients are unable to stimulate HSPs through exercise, but now with research indicating that saunas are nearly as effective, this is extremely important for the population to understand.
Moreover, new research is showing HSPs lowering insulin resistance, promoting longevity, and revving up immunity. Stress is not always a bad thing, especially if acute! It actually makes us stronger, no matter how uncomfortable in the moment.
As Above, So Below
Now that we see that the microscopic parts of bodies can perform such wonders when exposed to stress, it only makes logical sense to extrapolate to the environment around us.
- Our immune systems become extremely healthy if we are exposed to and live through any disease.
- We dread exercise but in the long run, it gives us the body we desire.
- Stressful heartbreaks teach us what we do and don’t want in a partner
- Fasting can feel mentally stressful, but frees up energy for our immune cells to seek and destroy cancerous or rogue cells.
- New business ventures are extremely stressful and take hard work but in the end you can reap great success.
- Fevers feel terrible but destroy unwanted pathogens
- Speaking our minds can be terribly difficult, but afterwards we usually feel a sense of relief.
Again, let me stress that not all stress is positive or healthy. It all depends on how much, our perspective about it, how long it continues and to what extent. But often, the bad can show us what we do not want to seek out. It can “wake us up” to a new world with new eyes. When we are at our lowest, we become creative and determined. We have nothing to lose. The underlying issue to grasp when dealing with stress is that EVERYTHING IS TEMPORARY. The good, the bad, the sun, the rain, joy or pain…all are temporary and will end. It is up to us in deciding HOW we respond to stress. And perhaps stress is a teacher that we should not avoid at all costs?
Only the greatest of warriors are given the greatest of trials. No one else could survive. No matter what you are going through, know that you will survive and be better and stronger for it. SMILE