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Are You Using Stress to Make You Strong?

Sport_065When I owned a health care clinic in Phoenix, one of the things we offered was a course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. We got the super Type-A executives and professionals referred by their doctors who were unsuccessful at helping them. Their blood pressure or anti-anxiety drugs might as well have been placebos. Stress was more than decreasing their quality of life; it was killing them.

After forty years of seeing the ravages of stress on my clients’ lives, I do see that certain stressors serve us. Exercise is the best example of how stress makes us strong. Without movement that strains us, we become weak. Our muscles will atrophy and our bones will disintegrate. Without the stress of learning, our mental abilities decrease.

Nassim Taleb’s book Anti-Fragile explains how discomfort allows you to bounce back stronger and elevate your performance. Hormesis is the biological phenomenon what allows you to improve your health and grow from exposure to minor doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses. Sunlight and its gamma-rays and UV-radiation is good in low dosage; we need sunlight to synthesize Vitamin D. But we all know what can happen when we get too much sun.

How to benefit from Hormesis

As the basis for all athletic and psychological improvement, hormesis can be the catalyst that breaks you out of a plateau of mediocrity. Your homeostasis can gradually degrade into death if your body or mind is not challenged. For instance, without the stress of gravity, an astronaut’s bones disintegrate.

The negative effects of stress come from the input that the body can’t grow or learn from. It might not be the intensity of the stress, but its duration that causes disease. So, how do you know if the stress you are experiencing is good for you?

If your body is not going into prolonged stress response—that is, a survival response of fight, flight, or freeze—then you aren’t accumulating stress. If your body/mind is using the stress to develop new behaviors, whether cellular or global, then hormesis is at play. Simply, if you can’t leverage stress to develop a new behavior that enhances your life, end the stressful behavior.

One of the key components of hormesis is how it produces a release of tension or toxins. Rolfing clients will often come to see me because they are in chronic pain that no drug or treatment will relieve. Maybe their back pain reached a point where walking is a major feat. What surprises these clients is how tight and sensitive their backs are to my touch. A light touch might produce a jerk. Slowly over a few sessions what was highly sensitive is now relaxing.

Using the stimulus of my touch to trigger a release not only made their body less sensitive, but released the tension causing their chronic back pain. Allowing for the pain in the beginning of the treatments caused the tension to release. In the process of releasing the chronic tension, these clients learned how to prevent new stress from producing new tension. None of this would be possible without allowing what was negative to be the healing agent. What in your life that is a negative can you use to enhance it? How can you vary your lifestyle to encourage your body to be more resilient?

Owen Marcus, MA, Certified Advanced Rolfer, – call if you have questions: 265.8440. This article and many more health and wellness articles are at the blog:


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