Stress is often viewed as a bad thing, but humans really need certain kinds of stress. Maybe many people have noticed this recently due to staying at home more and just chilling-out watching Netflix all day during lockdowns. While for many this kind of thing might feel like a perfect day, most quickly come to the realisation that this kind of lifestyle can become super-depressing in a very short period of time.
We evolved to deal with certain stresses both internal and environmental, and in the modern day environment many of these stresses are either absent or not experienced very often. If we can rediscover or practice putting ourselves through these kinds of stressful situations more often, we'll be healthier for it.
So in this article I'm going to highlight some types of stress I believe people need on a regular basis to stay healthy based partly on the science and what I have learned from reading fairly extensively into the subject, and my own personal experiences. Most of these are going to be broken-down into different kinds of physical stresses:
People feel great after exercise and this is no coincidence given the very physical nature of our evolutionary past. I have noticed that the feel-good feeling exercise brings can be further divided into different parts, however.
1. The Endorphin Rush - you tend to feel this one after intense physical exercise. This state is often the hardest to find because of the intensity of the exercise required, but once people find it, like a drug it becomes addictive and often needs higher and higher does of intensity in order to get the 'hit' as time goes by. Crossfitters are a good example of the kinds of people that fit this category. Unlike drugs, however, intense exercise has mostly positive effects on your body. The big negative though, is the damage high intensity exercise can do if you perform exercises poorly, and even the toll it takes on your body over time when you perform them correctly. It is possible to do high intensity workouts without damaging your joints, and this website can take you through the process of achieving this. In general, however, my recommendation is that the majority of people do high intensity workouts sparingly and keep a close eye-out for signs of injury, especially if you do these kinds of workouts regularly, because they will happen.
2. Clarity-Inducing Endurance Exercise - you don't have to run a marathon to do this, a good walk for most people will do the trick. However, long walks and running, or anything mildly difficult over long durations such as swimming, cycling, or rowing can have the same effect. There is a reason walking clears your head, though the exact mechanism is not very well understood. Some of the great philosophers recognised that walking, especially in nature, had profound effects on their clarity of thinking and general well-being. As mentioned in previous posts, humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, covering large areas over the period of a day. Whether foraging or hunting we would have been on our feet searching and tracking a lot, and our physiology shows this as our bodies are very well adapted to extreme endurance activity. In fact, we are as well adapted to this kind of lifestyle as any land animal.
3. Strength Training - humans were never designed to be sedentary, being so has a deleterious effect on our muscles and bones. Without the regular stress and strain of lifting, climbing, throwing, or fighting, we waste away. Muscles become incapable of doing everyday tasks and our bones become brittle. We need the to be able to get things done and not be so vulnerable to injury, and strength training is how we do this. It isn't only relevant to those who want to look good in the mirror to impress the girls, it is an essential part of health for everyone.
The Great Outdoors
Not only are we much more sedentary than our ancestors, but we spend much less time outside. The great outdoors is not only soothing and relaxing, but if you have any experience actually living in the elements, whether through camping or even just long hikes, you'll realise it is also very uncomfortable. No heating, no air conditioner, no lights, and sometimes less safety too (try spending the night in a tent in bear country, every little sound can have you on edge). We have evolved to adapt to these stresses; to use our own bodily processes to keep us warm or cool, and to regulate our sleep patterns. Getting back to nature can feel too uncomfortable for some, but if you get past the initial discomfort, the benefits to your health are continually being discovered.
In 2018, I spent about 9 months travelling around Australia and New Zealand by bicycle, wild camping most of the way. I was at least one of, freezing cold, boiling hot, hungry, thirsty, and physically exhausted almost every day. Far from being the worst 9 months of my life, they were most certainly the best, both physically and mentally. Here may be the reason why:
People hate being cold, but in general they hate being uncomfortable and the cold is probably one of the more discomforting sensations for most people. But spend any time in nature and you'll realise that you get cold all the time; you need to adjust to it, get used to it, and accept it. This was our everyday state in our evolutionary past, so we need to revisit it every now and then to help us stay healthy.
Perhaps being cold as a way to stay healthy was mostly made famous by a Dutch man called Wim Hof, because of his insane ability to withstand the cold. You can read more about the many health benefits of cold immersion into water, cold showers, and generally tolerating colder temperatures than normal in the article below: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/magical-health-benefits-getting-cold/
Being outside too long isn't the only way to get hot, you can do it in a sauna or a steam room also, and current research suggests this is beneficial for heart health as well as being an effective way to relieve stress. Exercise also raises your body temperature and is believed to be one of the many reasons why regular exercise is good for you. Being outside and being active on a warm day, again means you have to adapt your body to the surroundings rather than just adjusting the temperature in your home, and there seems to be something your body likes about this process, as long as it is not too extreme.
This is not one to overdo, but regular exposure to sunlight is essential for vitamin D levels and the absorption of minerals like calcium and phosphorus. I recommend getting your dose of sun in the early morning before the sun is too strong, especially if you live in Australia. People living in my home country, the UK, might struggle to find enough sun at times, but seek out a bit of sun whenever you can. It seems likely to me that our species needs some exposure to the sun as we would have evolved to spend much more time outside with it than we currently do.
The many benefits of sunlight are well summarised in the article below: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/ss/slideshow-sunlight-health-effects
This is one I am less familiar with, and the science behind it is largely non-existent, but it is essentially making contact with the ground without shoes and also being immersed in an environment, like the water in lakes, rivers, the ocean, etc. It all sounds very "spiritual" to me and this all makes me a bit sceptical. However, when I try it, it definitely seems to have a feel-good, relaxing effect. Personally, I like to do a workout on the beach in barefoot or go for a swim in a lake, river, or in the sea. Where I live in Cairns, a swim in a mountain stream kills a few birds with one stone; you get the grounding, cold therapy, sunlight, and the serenity of natural surroundings all in one go. I usually feel amazing afterwards.
So give it a go and see what you think. The article below has a little more information about grounding:
This is another area I don't have great expertise in, but practice diaphragmatic breathing as part of the way I train (you need to do this for good biomechanics). I mentioned Wim Hof earlier as part of my argument for cold stress, but he also advocates a kind of breathing to encourage a physical stress to adapt to. You can see the link for a fuller explanation. I find Wim Hof a curious character who probably talks a fair amount of mumbo jumbo as to how his theories work, but there is no doubt he can do extraordinary things with his body and is worth listening to.
The theory behind fasting is that giving your body an extended break from having to deal with the food entering your body allows it to "detoxify" (I hate that word, but can't think of a better one), and focus on other areas of bodily replenishment.
It seems to make sense to me from an evolutionary perspective. Our ancestors would have gone much longer intervals without food at times, as food was obviously less readily available than just popping to the supermarket. This physical hunger kind of stress is likely something that we evolved with and therefore may be an important factor in keeping us as healthy as possible.
My personal experience with this is limited, but I did try a 36 hour fast once. It was actually a pretty amazing experience; I found that it wasn't as hard as I thought it was once I got over the initial hunger of missing the first meal. What was quite amazing however was how clear-minded and awake I was. I don't think I have ever had such mental clarity and this made it very easy to get work done during the day, but extremely difficult to sleep at night. I got pretty excited upon finishing my 36 hours and as a result ate too much too quickly. As a warning to anyone thinking of fasting, don't do as I did. Eating too much, too soon after a fast caused me to feel a very weird hot and cold sickness, probably as a result of overload on my liver. It cleared-up after ten minutes but was pretty unpleasant.
I have greatly benefitted in recent years from eating less in general, and I also have a full 12-hour gap between dinner and breakfast on a daily basis, which I really think helps my gut settle. I try never to eat until I am full and sometimes this makes me feel quite hungry, but I usually feel pretty good in this state. It all makes me think that being hungry on a fairly regular basis is also and important aspect to good health, and is another stress that we need.
See below for more information on fasting: Intermittent fasting: the science of going without (nih.gov)
Voluntarily Going Outside of Your Comfort Zone
I end on this because it kind of encompasses everything else. The ability to overcome and confront the heat, the cold, physical exhaustion or discomfort, holding your breath, withstanding hunger, or simply coping with the general discomfort of being in nature without all the luxuries of home, plays a huge factor in confronting problems in life more generally and therefore coping with stress, both physical and mental. Humans seems to be beasts of burden that thrive on challenges to overcome. If we aren't struggling to overcome something we seem to wither and die, whether literally or metaphorically.
I think my ability to withstand physical discomfort through exercise was the first step for me in building confidence and resilience in life more broadly. This lead me on a journey to discover how to live the best, most stress-free life possible physically, but then also went on to perform the same function mentally. What I discovered was that in order to truly relax and be healthy, sitting on your butt all day sipping fine wines and eating cheese in a perfectly comfortable environment does not make you healthy, nor is is ultimately relaxing or something that makes you happy. There is a place for the pleasures in life, but unless you've paid for it with a bit of suffering the way nature intended, there will always be something missing from your life, and your health will suffer for it.