Biological Paradox of a Protector and Destructor, the Catch-22 of Stress
The all powerful initiator of destructive transformations, active in all humans and animals, is the very same force which also promotes restoration, protection, and growth.
Whether it is physical or mental, stress is the single most powerful transformative mechanism inherent to all and unbeknownst to most. Stress can be detrimental, but it does not have to be. Stress has the potential to transform our lives in incredible ways.
Various stress induced physiological processes help protect and restore our mind and body, while at the same time, hyper-stimulation of said processes can ultimately deteriorate our minds and physical health. The key is balance. Almost a century ago an interesting paradox was discovered; the same physiological systems activated by stress can not only damage the body but also protect and restore it.
Excessive stress weakens the immune system, degrades neural tissue, destroys muscle and bone mass, advances heart disease, clogs our minds, makes us depressed, anxious, frustrated, unhappy, and just plain miserable! BUT, just enough stress strengthens the immune system, promotes neurogenesis, regenerates muscle and bone tissue, strengthens the heart, clears our minds, and makes us resilient, capable, and simply happy. Talk about a catch-22!
Some people are completely oblivious to the fact that in order to build muscle, the muscle fibers must be torn. Self inflicted muscle lesions with a knife won’t quite do it; these tears are microscopic and result from excessive stress. The most widely used technique for muscle growth, progressive overload, is the gradual increase of stress, tension, or pressure placed on the body during a workout or exercise training session. This fundamental technique is employed by physical therapists, fitness trainers, and weight lifters alike.
Muscle growth doesn’t occur during a weight lifting or exercise training session; on the contrary, this is when your muscles are broken down. Growth occurs when the body repairs the muscles as a result of the tears. When muscle fibers are torn, the body responds by healing and rebuilding the injured muscle tissue bigger and stronger, an evolutionary adaptation technique the body uses to avoid such tears the next time it is inflicted with a similar amount of tension or stress.
It’s rather interesting that the actual physical activity in which the muscle fibers are microscopically torn simply serves as a physiological trigger releasing biological and chemical signals to activate cellular machinery for rebuilding the muscle fibers bigger and stronger. Of course, the caveat is that immediately following the aftermath of a workout, the body must have a steady amount of energy and resources to rebuild the muscle tissue.
Fortunately, research has shown that this evolutionary adaptive technique for building stronger bodies is not exclusive to muscle and bone tissue. When we are engaged in mentally strenuous activities such as studying, reading, memorizing, or playing video games, or occupied with psychologically arduous states of mind such as depression, anxiety, or stress, we aren’t creating any microscopic tears for the brain to rebuild stronger; rather, we are consolidating and creating more neural connections in some regions of the brain, and promoting neurogenesis in other regions of the brain. If an individual learns new things, regardless if it’s academic, athletic, or experiential and emotionally charged, it helps produce more neurons in the hippocampus, the region of the brain that regulates long term memory formation and retention, and strengthens connections with existing neurons.
Here’s a crash course in neuroscience; if a neuron doesn’t receive stimulatory input from one of its several thousand connections with other neurons for a certain amount of time, it will die. While overall brain mass won’t increase with every fact you digest or experience you live, it will, however, either increase or consolidate neural connections and promote a healthier physical brain.
Life with absolutely no stress will literally weaken your mind and eventually deteriorate the brain. Likewise, life with constant non-stop stress or non-stop intense learning will also weaken your mind and eventually deteriorate the brain.
By wallowing in a moderate amount of depression, anxiety, stress, happiness, excitement, etc., we are exposing our psyche to the extremities of emotionally charged experiences. In order to adapt to a particular environment, one must be exposed to it. Modern psychology suggests that we should not run away from our emotions. For example, for someone to overcome a phobia, one must gradually expose themselves to the triggering stressor to achieve desensitization. Although easier said than done, once you’ve gained enough psychological experience to overcome emotionally challenging situations, things of this sort will become a piece of cake. Another example is when people try to avoid a depressed state of mind with distractions and preoccupations. While the depression may slowly disappear from conscious radar with enough distractions, that particular individual most likely won’t develop the necessary psychological experience to handle similar emotions later in life. It would be very beneficial for them to wallow in the depression. It won’t be permanent. Your mind, just like your muscles, will eventually build the strength to overcome the depression.
The caveat to this is we have to spend some time, daily, letting our minds drift into a state of tranquility. Similar to the necessary rest after a workout, when we experience intense stress for a prolonged period of time, we need to let the mind settle in a calm and tranquil state for a bit. There are various ways to achieve said tranquility and one of the most powerful methods is sleep. While it may be difficult to consciously relax at first, with enough practice you will be able to do it no matter how bad you feel or severe the psychological distress is. This type of unwinding can also be done at a conscious state, with practices such as meditation and playing/enjoying music.
Understanding the correct way to exercise the mind will change your outlook on life and increase your ability to cope with its hurdles. When human beings are psychologically experiencing the negatives and positives of life, we are strengthening our psyche.
Consider this; those that have physically demanding jobs such as athletes, construction workers, gardeners, firefighters, etc., tend to have better overall physical health. Concurrently, those with desk jobs tend to be weaker and more prone to physical ailments, such as obesity, heart disease, etc. It’s no surprise why this is so, but nonetheless important to note because this process, although difficult to observe with the eye, is also active in the psyche of people that experience stress. Those that suffer regularly generally have a greater ability to cope with life’s hurdles. It is very unfortunate that our society is unnecessarily preoccupied with outer appearances with an utter disregard for inner (psychological, mental) health and “appearance”. Therefore, it is very important to realize and understand that stress and other mental hardships are good for you. Just learn how to relax and implement a train of thought, and much like weight-lifting, the mind will grow in unimaginable ways.
Imagine for a moment; if a coach potato was asked to run a mile, he’d probably break a sweat just from the thought. If a runner was asked to do a mile, he’d jump on the track with no hesitation. Similarly, people that experience stress develop a greater capacity to face life’s challenges.
Also check out our article on the biological implications of how detrimental stress can be.