The Benefits of Acute Stress for People in Pain

This was a really thought-provoking article from Neil Pearson on balancing acute versus chronic stress in the body.  While chronic stress is harmful on the body, acute stress actually has a lot of benefits.  Pearson explains,

“If you want to make a muscle stronger, use it more. If you want to grow more tolerant of an irritating or bothersome sensation or experience, step up to it. Face it. In time, it will bother you less. Try playing a string instrument for the first time, and feel the intense pain from pushing down strings with your fingertips. Keep doing it and your body will adapt, even creating a callous as a protective response, just like woodworkers and carpenters have on their hands and dancers have on their feet. In other words, when you stress your body, typically it responds by being better able to tolerate that stress next time.”

His advice is:

“Create acute stress while limiting the chronic stress of a flare-up: Make a daily plan to try an activity (or part of an activity) you want to do, but do it while you do your very best to keep your breathing even, your body tension low (only use as much as you need for the activity), and your stress level as low as possible.”

I thought this was great advice.  So often we get the message that all stress is bad; that in order to be healthy, you must eliminate all sources of stress in your life.  I think some of this advice is a little overblown– you’re never going to be able to cut out everything that stresses you out from your life, and if you are, you probably won’t be very engaged with the world.

Instead, I think it’s best to strike a balance between eliminating unnecessary stresses and learning to handle the ones you aren’t going to be able to control.  One way to do this is to becoming more conscious of acute stress– the pounding of your heart during exercise, the strain on your muscles when you lift a heavy weight.  These are all stresses that can help you grow in a positive direction and, unlike chronic stress, they have an endpoint.  When you learn to observe acute stress in a mindful way, it can help to put chronic stress in a different perspective.


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