Stress gets a bad rap. We’re often warned that stress is a killer, increasing our risk for heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia and more. And stress feels terrible, tying us up in knots of anxiety. But while chronic stress is indeed toxic, there’s increasing evidence that short, concentrated bursts of stress actually can be extremely good for us…and even life-extending. Bottom Line Personal asked Elissa Epel, PhD, a longevity expert and author of The Stress Prescription, how your stress can help you live longer.
Short bursts of stress, also known as hormetic stress, trigger the body’s stress response just as chronic stress does—but because hormetic stress is over in just seconds or minutes, the stress response is quickly followed by the body’s stress shut-off process, called the vagal rebound. This rebound not only feels good, it triggers autophagy, a process of cellular cleanup that is strongly linked to longevity.
Example: In a study by researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, worms that were subjected to brief bursts of high temperatures to induce stress and autophagy lived longer than worms that were not subjected to elevated temperatures—even though the temperatures were high enough that they would have killed the worms with longer exposure.
Additional studies, including one conducted by Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, from University of Miami, have shown that short-term stress enhances the immune response in humans. That makes it very different from chronic stress, which can interfere with immune response. Research suggests that repeated exposure to short-term stress also might boost cognitive and physical performance…and it likely enhances our resilience during larger stresses in the future. So not only can living through frequent brief stresses make us more psychologically resilient, it can improve the body’s overall stress response.
Even better: We can put this “positive hormetic stress” to use in our own lives in just a few minutes per week.
Bottom Line Personal asked Dr. Epel to share the “stress fitness” exercises that trigger longevity-promoting hormetic stress. Try doing one or more of the following a few times or more each week…
Get quick bursts of physical exercise. Vigorous physical activity triggers the body’s positive hormetic stress process—and you don’t need an extended workout to benefit.
Strategy: Do an aerobic exercise for 30 seconds…take a 10-second break…then repeat the exercise/rest cycle for a total of seven minutes. What exercise you do during this high-intensity interval training is up to you—pushups, jumping jacks, jumping rope or quick sprints are among the many options. What’s important is that the exercise increases your heart rate and breathing rate. Even just walking briskly could be sufficient if you’re out of shape. But those exercises should be done with enough intensity that you feel mild-to-moderate discomfort. That discomfort indicates that your body is under stress, which is precisely what’s required to reap the longevity benefits of short-term stress. Bonus: There’s strong evidence that high-intensity interval training also is a mood booster. One recent study by Harvard University researchers found that just 15 minutes per day of high-intensity exercise significantly reduces the odds of depression.
Take cold showers. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that daily immersion in cold water increases the life spans of lab rats—the jolt the body experiences when hit by a blast of icy water triggers positive hormetic stress. Fortunately, you don’t have to immerse yourself in cold water to take advantage—you don’t even have to give up your hot showers.
Strategy: Shower at whatever temperature you find comfortable…but before stepping out of the shower, turn the temperature to cold for at least 15 to 30 seconds. If this doesn’t cause you discomfort, spend more time under the cold water or lower the water temperature further—if there’s no discomfort, there probably isn’t any positive hormetic stress. Bonus: Showering and/or immersion in cold water have been shown to decrease inflammation and improve circulation. Added benefit: A study conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that cold showers reduced symptoms of depression.
Take saunas. Exposing the body to a cold shower’s icy water triggers positive hormetic stress…and exposing it to heat can do so as well. Saunas can help accomplish this. Researchers at University of Eastern Finland found that middle-aged men who took four to seven saunas per week were 40% less likely to die during a 20-year period than were men who took saunas less frequently.
Strategy: Take periodic 30-minute saunas. Both steam and infrared saunas appear to be effective. The sauna temperature should be high enough—and your time in the sauna long enough—that you experience a measure of discomfort. Caution: If you have heart issues, first confirm with your doctor that sauna use is safe for you. Bonus: Sauna use improves cardiovascular function…and it’s been shown to be a helpful treatment for depression, according to researchers at University of Arizona, Tucson.
Try hypoxic breathing techniques. Researchers at University of Amsterdam have confirmed that hypoxic breathing techniques—which combine quick inhales, slow exhales and breath-holding—trigger positive hormetic stress. One easy protocol for hypoxic breathing was developed by the Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, who helped popularize it—he also is a pioneer in harnessing the health benefits of cold-water immersion.
Strategy: Inhale quickly, deeply and vigorously…exhale slowly but powerfully and not all the way…repeat this inhale/exhale technique 30 to 50 times…take one more quick, deep inhale…exhale part way…then hold your breath for as long as you can without feeling faint or dizzy. This breath-holding should last long enough that it becomes uncomfortable. After a short break, repeat this entire process two more times. Hypoxic breathing shifts blood oxygen levels and causes other bodily responses that trigger hormetic stress.
Related: Modifying the pace at which you breathe also can help you calm down when you’re agitated…or pep you up when you need an energy boost. When you want to be calmer: Consciously slow your breathing to around six breaths per minute for at least three to five minutes. When you’re feeling tired and need to reinvigorate yourself: Try stimulating breath practice—while seated, inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose with your mouth closed for around 10 seconds…breathe normally for 15 to 30 seconds…then repeat this process at least several more times.