Healthy stress: why a little pressure is actually good for us

What would you say - which factors are particularly important for a long, healthy and happy life? Firstly, a healthy diet, then enough sleep, and I'm sure you would also list sport or at least regular exercise, wouldn't you? Perhaps, on the contrary, you would also advise against some things that are generally considered harmful to health: Alcohol, nicotine and other stimulants, for example. You would almost certainly also cite stress as unhealthy in this context. Many health apostles consider it to be the ultimate cause of illness, obesity and unhappiness. But is that even true?

Have you ever come across the terms "hormesis" or "hormetic reaction"? This refers to a principle of the human body that becomes active as soon as we are exposed to any harmful influences: extreme heat or cold, for example, UV radiation, lack of oxygen or nutrition. In this situation, all kinds of protective and defence mechanisms immediately kick in at cellular level to neutralise this negative influence as best they can. They attack invading bacteria or viruses, for example, repair minor damage and immediately dispose of any biological material that can no longer be saved. This is why the tip of your nose, which has unfortunately not been creamed in time and is too sunburnt, will eventually peel.

The special thing about this reaction is that it is never produced by our body in exactly the right amount, but rather according to the excess principle of "a lot helps a lot". This is intended to ensure that the body can cope with the damage caused. The excess of protection and defence that remains after the cellular rescue operation is stored for a while so that the same or similar negative stimulus that occurs shortly afterwards can be defended against more quickly and effectively. Or it is simply used to repair other damage that was already present in the body before the negative stimulus.

You yourself may already be actively utilising the principle of hormesis, even if you have never heard the term before. The fasting practised by many people at this time of year, for example, or so-called intermittent fasting (which has been praised as an anti-ageing miracle cure for normal everyday life for quite a while now) is based on precisely this principle. By exposing the body to what is actually a highly stress-inducing hunger stimulus for a certain period of time - a few hours or even several days, depending on the setting - you specifically trigger certain enzymes in the body that specialise in repairing DNA. Perhaps you also like to go to the sauna from time to time or had a small (or large) muscle ache after your last Pilates session? Bingo, hormesis is at play again! Because here too, you are exposing your body to an actually harmful stimulus for a short period of time, but this leads to an improvement in your overall condition in the long term.

The same principle also applies to mental stress: a regular small dose of it is not only good for us, it is actually very important. Short-term stress stimuli of all kinds also activate our brain, keeping it fit and on its toes so that it can perform optimally. All learning processes, for example, only work in this way. So if you never face new mental challenges and always stay in your familiar comfort zone, you are not doing yourself any favours in the long term. Stress only becomes problematic when it is present in our lives on a strong and permanent basis. Paracelsus was right once again: the dose makes the poison.

A pretty important realisation for your everyday life, especially when things are going badly for you again. Of course, you shouldn't "de Herzbännel abrenne" (= permanently overexert yourself) indefinitely, as we say here in the Palatinate. But you should welcome a small, well-measured stress stimulus here and there with open arms, as it is very beneficial for your happiness balance and your health. It doesn't have to be ice bathing!