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2 min read

Emotional Hormesis - Why Stress Is Often Beneficial

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Did you know a certain amount of stress can actually be beneficial to well-being and productivity? Learn why wellness apps that only focus on reducing stress are short-changing you! 

King Mithradates V of Pontus (in today's Turkey) was killed in 120 BC at age 30, probably by his wife, when he was poisoned at an extravagant feast. His son, Mithradates VI, went on a walkabout to escape his murderous mother and began ingesting small amounts of poisons to make himself immune to lethal doses.  Murder is the mother of invention.

In medicine, this effect is known as hormesis.  A little of something can be good for you but too much will harm or kill you.  Hormesis is found in many biological processes.  Hypernatremia is excess sodium in the body that can damage blood vessels, brain, and kidneys, leading to death.  But too little sodium, hyponatremia, that occurs when people drink too much water, will also kill.

It is the same with physiologic arousal, commonly but incorrectly called "stress."  A century ago psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson published research showing that moderate arousal improves performance while low or high arousal inhibits it (see image below).  Indeed, the Yerkes-Dodson law is found throughout biology and has been confirmed in innumerable studies, including some from my own lab.  


Arousal Level

Physiologic arousal reveals that what you are doing is important and directs the body's resources into helping you perform at your best.  In fact, arousal is the basis for neuroplasticity--the brain's ability to adapt by establishing novel pathways and new behaviors.  Of course, chronic arousal impairs performance and mood, but for most of us, stress occurs for short episodes and then dissipates.  

To flourish as a human being requires stress. Why, then, does every "wellness" app fetishize reducing stress?  Mostly, this is because it "seems" bad and is easy to measure.

Stress/arousal builds our abilities, both physiologically and emotionally, and needs to be embraced, not avoided.  Emotional resilience is strengthened by facing challenges.  I remember the first time I walked into a morgue to dissect a human body--there were a dozen corpses on tables and it was quite uncomfortable.  But, I did my dissection, got used to it, and moved on.  Over time, the unease of being around corpses, which is naturally disconcerting but necessary in many disciplines lifted because my brain adapted to this situation.  

First responders are similarly trained to perform while physiologically aroused, a process known as "stress inoculation."  They build the capacity to perform difficult tasks by training in uncomfortable situations and learning how to manage high levels of arousal.  Athletic training does the same thing when a coach pushes an athlete beyond what is comfortable.

Emotional fitness requires stress and recovery, just like physical fitness does.  This is why the scientists at Immersion developed the world's only app that measures the neurologic basis for thriving.  It is called Tuesday and we made it free because we want to help everyone to flourish.  

Tuesday quantifies the neurologic impact of social and emotional experiences, a metric we call Immersion.  Our published research shows that people need enough peak Immersion experiences to sustain and build emotional fitness.  Tuesday not only measures how much the brain values experiences, it gives users goals daily to build up their emotional fitness.  Here's the kicker--peak experiences are physiologically arousing, they require an investment of metabolic resources.  Peak Immersion experiences induce moderate physiologic stress following the Yerkes-Dodson law, showing that people are performing at their best.  This is emotional hormesis. 

Tuesday shows users how to lean in to the peak experiences and how to build the capacity to fully experience life every day. We certainly need to avoid chronic stress, but at the same time, to truly thrive we need just a little of the poison of peak experiences. 

Download Tuesday for free today!


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