Neil Pearson on the benefits of acute stress

I recently discovered this super thought-provoking article article from Neil Pearson on the positive effects of acute stress on the body.

We normally think of stress in as the chronic, ongoing stress that continues for weeks on end, taking a toll on our body in the process.  However, there are ways in which acute stress– that is, stress that only occurs during a short period of time, and then comes to an end– can actually benefit our bodies.

Neil writes,

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.

We are built to survive.  If there’s anything I learned in my health and science classes, it’s that our bodies are built to adapt specifically in response to the stresses we experience. If we continually perform a certain movement, the muscles that perform that movement will become stronger and better suited to the task.

If we perform a new task repeatedly, we will get better at it, until it becomes second nature.  Our nervous systems will change, and our mental map of this task will become more developed.

Our bodies crave the kind of challenge that we can rise to.  As Neil says, “acute stress is adaptive. This makes sense. When we exercise – challenging our physical abilities – we are not just improving our bodies physically; we are also making changes in our nervous systems.”

So.  How can people with chronic pain and health issues use acute stress to our advantage?

Neil suggests that we harness our body’s ability to grow and change in ways that can benefit us.  By teaching our bodies to do new things, we can give our nervous systems something to process other than pain, and try to jump-start that healthy, adaptive response.

If pain has been preventing you from exercising, Neil suggests:

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.

So basically: we stress our bodies– our nervous systems, in particular, but also our muscles– in new ways.  But we make sure we are in the right place, mentally and physiologically, while we do it, by proactively taking steps to keep our nervous systems from going into fight or flight mode.

There’s even more in Neil’s article.  He talks about some of the positive effects of stress and exercise on the brain– how chronic pain can dim these effects, but how the techniques he suggest might present a way around that.  Definitely check it out!

***

All this talk about the positive aspects of stress reminds me of health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s excellent TED talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”  I’ve posted about it on my blog before, because it’s just really so great.

In this talk, McGonigal explains more about how stress can actually be a healthy motivator, seeking us to reach out to others and form social supports, and also spurring us on to create meaning in our lives.  She also suggests that when we learn to view stress as a potentially positive factor, it can actually limit some of the negative effects we normally assume stress will have on us.

There’s so much more to say, but for now, I think I’ll let you check these two resources out!  Happy reading/Youtubing– let me know what you think!

 

Little things

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These days,  I’m all about the little things.

Last Sunday, I went with my friend Romina to her father’s house in Rhode Island.  I would say that we were going to visit, but we were actually short on time, and Romina just needed to drop some things off.

But we ended up having a great time.  I had never gotten to know Rhode Island that well, and didn’t realize how beautiful it was, with all of its waterways and estuaries.  We drove through Providence and the surrounding towns, and I soaked in the beauty of all we passed.

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As I mentioned in my last post, travel wasn’t really a huge part of my life for the past 10+ years.  Since I developed compartment syndrome at 17, there always seemed to be one reason or another why I couldn’t be on my feet for long periods of time.  And what’s the point of travel, if you can’t walk around?  Better to wait and save my money until I could really enjoy it (or so I thought).

However, as I entered my late 20’s, my thinking started to change.  I realized that the perfect day when I’d be able to walk as much as I wanted might never come.  Why was I missing out on things, waiting for everything to be perfect, instead of enjoying what was possible right now?

I know this is going to sound like such a cliche, but it’s cliche for a good reason: I started to focus less on what I couldn’t do, and more on what I could do.

I can’t go on a six-hour walking tour through the rolling hills of San Francisco right now.  But I can tag along with Romina, on what would otherwise be a routine errand for her, and turn it into a really fun afternoon.

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I read an article a few years ago which really had an effect on me.  It was actually an article on how to be good to the environment and minimize your carbon footprint.  It pointed out something that of course is going to sound so obvious now:

If you have one errand to run, try to think of other things you can do on that same route.  Don’t make separate trips and go back and forth, when, with a little bit of planning, you can just make the first trip slightly longer and get more done. 

I know, this sounds so obvious– you probably didn’t need me to tell you.

But for me, as someone who really cares about the environment, it really got me thinking about what else is around me as I go about my daily life.  I started to study Google maps before every trip, wondering what cool scenic thing I might be driving by.   If I have the time– even a few extra minutes– why not try to see something cool?

I started out doing this for environmental reasons (not to mention to save money on gas) but over time, I came to realize that my whole perspective had changed.  Somehow, by getting in the habit of trying to make the most out of every trip, I had started to become more conscious of the unexpected little things around me.

Downtown Providence from Point Street bridge

I mean, this is how we are when we’re on on vacation, right?  We try to see everything; to soak it in.  Everything is new.

But what I have learned, in my study of maps, is that we can have more of a vacation-mindset in our every day life.  It’s a matter of perspective.

You have to take the time to look, consciously.  No one is going to take you by the hand and force you to see the beauty in the world.  You have to remind yourself to keep your eyes open.

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I don’t mean to sound as though I am against travel– not at all.

I just know that before my health problems, I used to think about travel the way I think most people probably do: what is my preferred destination?  What do I want to see more than anything else, and how can I maximize my enjoyment of that destination?

But that way of thinking– let’s call it the “enjoyment-maximization mindset”– is what made it so devastating to me when I couldn’t walk, and made me not want to travel until things could be perfect.

Now, I am in more of what I would call an “appreciation mindset,” where I consciously remind myself to look up and see what is around me.  This is another cliche, but it’s honestly not about the end destination: it’s about the journey.

Just because I’m driving to a doctor’s office down an unsightly highway full of strip malls does not mean that, two miles off the main road, there won’t be a gorgeous scenic overlook or historical park.

***

Even if you can’t travel far, or see things on foot, you can still discover new things all the time.  But it does take a conscious effort to break out of old ways of thinking, and decide what matters to you, even if your adventures are not in the same form other people’s would take.

Now, I say yes to so many invitations I would have turned down in the past.  These days, when my friends go camping, I actually go too.  (Car-camping, of course–backpacking would still be too much of a stretch).

In the past, I never would have said yes to camping.  What would be the point?  I would have thought.  I can’t actually go hiking with them during the daytime, so why would I want to go and be by myself all day?

But that was my old way of viewing things: of waiting until I could experience things the same way everyone else does.

Now I go, and I do as much with the group as I can.  We generally go to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and what I never realized until I got there is that even the car ride can be fun, because it’s so beautiful.  There are things to stop and see all up and down the major roads.

Now, when my friends leave in the morning to go hiking at whatever mountain they’ve chosen that day,  I drop them off, and then go sightseeing for a few hours until it’s time to pick them up again.

***

Of course, this plan wouldn’t work without the right people.  I’m really loading this post up with cliches, but hey– it’s not just what you do; it’s who you’re with.  Anything can be fun with the right person.

I am grateful to the people I’ve found in my own life, who are able to appreciate the little things with me.  To friends who give me their car for the day so I’m not stuck at the campground.  To a friend like Romina, who can make a tour of her hometown so much fun.  (And of course, to her father and his wife, who sent us home with about 30 pounds of food Sunday night).

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Peruvian-American fusion.

It’s all about figuring out what matters to you, and makes you happy.   And remembering to seek it out, even if it’s in a different form than what you once would have expected.

***

Photos of Providence:

One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard…

Once in a while I post things unrelated to the main topic of my blog, simply because they are amazing. Here is one of them.

I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch recently, which is why I haven’t been posting too much. Music is one of the things that helps me get through those times, and I’m so excited I discovered this band.

I don’t know how reliable Youtube comments are, but I read one comment that explained this song is about Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, two wartime photographers who fell in love and covered the globe together in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  They risked their lives to document different wars across the globe until Taro was killed in a freak accident.  The song is written from Capa’s viewpoint as he dies and goes to heaven, to be reunited with Taro.

Hope you enjoy this song as much as I do!

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.