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by Victoria Stokes
What is hormetic stress? And is it true that discomfort can be in the name of wellbeing?
Why you might already know about it
Heard a friend waxing lyrical about the benefits of showering in icy-cold water recently? Or noticed that the people you know are suddenly obsessed with HIIT (high-intensity interval training)?
Perhaps you have heard about ‘Freeze With Fear’, the new BBC series hosted by Wim Hof, an adventurer known as the Iceman. Or you’ve even watched as he challenges celebrities to brave freezing temperatures.
These practices are all based around the concept or hormetic stress.
What is hormetic stress?
In a nutshell, it’s a short burst of intense stress designed to make you feel better. If you’re already feeling stressed out, it might seem counterintuitive to place your body under more stress. On the face of it, stepping under a freezing cold shower or getting sweaty during a high intensity workout might not seem that appealing, but it’s said to provide physical, mental, and emotional benefits.
A 2020 paper explains that,“Hormetic stressors [are] acute intermittent stressors of moderate intensity [that] produce stress resilience, the ability for quick recovery, and possibly rejuvenation of cells and tissues.”
In other words, exposing ourselves to these short periods of stress is said to make our bodies stronger and more resilient at a cellular level, restore balance, and help us adapt to challenging circumstances with more ease.
A study on ageing, for example, found hormetic stress increased our tolerance for stress, as well as our ability to adapt and cope.
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Examples of hormetic stress
Some examples of hormetic stress include:
- intermittent fasting
- ice baths
- cold showers
- hypoxic breathing practices
- high-intensity workouts.
Hormetic or just extreme stress?
Hormetic stress isn’t about indulging in risky behaviour or putting yourself in danger. It differs from extreme stress, because it’s supposed to be mild to moderate.
While extreme stressors often involve a real threat and can be detrimental to your physical and mental health, hormetic stress is about finding safe and controlled ways to challenge your body in a bid to feel better overall.
It’s also important to remember that hormetic stress practices aren’t something you should be doing for a prolonged period of time.
The actual definition of hormetic is helpful to know here, it’s “the beneficial effects of a treatment that at a higher intensity is harmful”. So whether you’re getting into an ice-bath or stepping into the sauna, keep it short.
What are the mental health benefits of hormetic stress?
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Can exposing ourselves to intense bursts of hormetic stress really help us reduce stress and tension and improve our mental health overall?
1. It may help you cope with more severe stress.
According to a 2009 research paper, exposing yourself to moderate stressors could help you more effectively manage more extreme stress, whether that’s a looming deadline or a crushing workload.
The authors explain that hormetic stress triggers the activation of hormetic pathways in the brain that help neurons cope with more severe stress.
You might compare it to working out at the gym. The more you expose your muscles to stress, the better they become at handling that stress. They get stronger and able to deal with heavier strains over time.
2. It can boost confidence.
Whether you’re finishing a tough work out or standing under icy water for sixty seconds, these feats are a test of your endurance, and may therefore provide a sense of accomplishment.
If you’re under stress in other areas of your life you might feel as though you’re failing, but completing a small hormetic experience has the potential to give you a feeling of achievement.
In some cases it eases anxiety.
A 2021 study on the benefits of HIIT, for example, found that it significantly lowered stress, and also anxiety and depression.
A Beginner’s Guide to Hormetic Stressors
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So how can you integrate hormetic stressors into your life in a safe and effective way?
1.Keep it brief.
One of the key differences between toxic stress and beneficial stress is duration. We aren’t built to withstand extended periods of high-intensity pressure. In fact, prolonged stress can lead to burnout.
If you’re adding hormetic stress practices to your health toolkit, it’s important to keep time in mind. Don’t try to outdo your class instructor by going home and doing additional HIIT, for example. Or overload your schedule with too many hormetic activities.
Be mindful about how you feel when completing these activities and feel free to take a break or stop completely if it feels like too much.
2. Consider how much stress you’re already under.
Layering extra stress on top of prolonged, severe, and frequent stress may not be helpful. Be honest with yourself about how much you’re realistically able to take on right now. If it feels like too much, it probably is.
And don’t feel you have to do hormetic stress practices just because friends and colleagues are. If you are suffering from anxiety and feel you must convert to cold showers as your friends are, it might not be the time. Note that Japanese research studies connect hot water bathing to better sleep and more happiness!
3. Tackle the root cause of your stress.
Hormetic practices to ease tension can only go so far. If you’re under intense, prolonged stress it may be worthwhile to consider the source of your stress and create a plan to overcome it.
Sick of endlessly feeling stressed? Tried all the tools out there but they are not working? We connect you with a highly respected team of London therapists helping with stress who can help you finally make lasting change. Or use our sister site to find UK-wide registered therapists for every budget.
Victoria Stokes is a former Deputy Editor turned contributing writer specialising in mental health and wellbeing.