What Is Hormetic Stress?

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We all know that stress isn’t good for us. Stress gets its bad rap because it is a proven contributor to many physical ailments, including stomach ulcers, Crohn’s disease, high blood pressure, and even death. But what about the good forms of stress?

Hormetic stress is a form of positive stress that builds resilience within the body. This article will explain why it is good for you and considerations for increasing your hormesis. 

When a Little Stress Is Good for You

in plain terms, hormetic stress is the right amount of stress where your body is challenged, but you aren't overly fatigued. Because of this, your body isn’t weakening due to a total lack of stress exposure, but you’re avoiding the nasty side effects of toxic stress.

For example, think about vaccinations and how we are often told to prepare for a mild reaction like fatigue or cold symptoms. However, these mild symptoms only boost the immune system’s response when exposed to the virus it was vaccinated against. This is an example of hormetic stress at work.

When thinking of stress, you may consider different forms of physical stress. Consider how you feel when you’re frustrated. You may start to feel stressed out, evidenced by tension in your body or irritability. However, there can be such a thing as positive frustration.

Think about how you feel when learning something new for the first time. You may find yourself both engaged and momentarily irritated at times. Such frustration can be a form of hormetic stress. Hormetic stress can also be as simple as the deep contemplation that comes with figuring out a game. In fact, a 2018 study found that video games could contribute to a healthier aging process.

Why is Hormetic Stress Good For You?

When your body is exposed to just the right amount of stress, you develop resilience. In developing resilience, you begin to create a greater distress tolerance. In creating a greater distress tolerance, you will have a quicker recovery from stressful experiences, which can even result in enhanced cell and tissue repair. In turn, this can lead to longevity and vitality throughout the lifespan.

Examples of Hormetic Stress

There are many mainstream examples of engaging in hormetic stress. First, let’s focus on short-term physical examples.

Many forms of popularized exercise count as a form of hormetic stress, specifically, high-intensity interval training. In this exercise, your body is pushed to its max capacity for a short period and then moves to a resting state briefly. Engaging in these alternating intervals makes your body very dysregulated and fatigued. However, since it consists of short bursts of intense energy, your body is offered an opportunity to rest in-between sets, thus leading to increased resilience.

Another example is extreme temperature changes, like sitting in a sauna or taking an ice bath.

Crosswords, math problems, and games are all forms of nonphysical hormetic stress. Each of these involves a level of deep concentration and even annoyance. Think back to the last time you were stumped on a crossword puzzle. You likely became mildly flustered and reasonably irritated. You might have wanted to quit but couldn’t let the issue go. When you solved the puzzle, you probably felt a wave of relief. This relief isn't too different than what you may feel in between sets of high-intensity exercise.

A 2020 study in Ageing Research Reviews referenced a particularly intriguing example of hormetic stress where older adults suffering from isolation are tasked with working in schools and providing mentorship to at-risk youth. While it was considered a rather stressful experience, especially since the elders are significantly older than the youth they’re mentoring and have been experiencing isolation for a long time, it was also profoundly meaningful. This example could even relate to those who engage in volunteer work that they find somewhat stressful. It may be taxing in the moment, but it can lead to increased resilience. 

Considerations For Engaging in Hormetic Stress

While much of what is being shared in this article may sound appealing, there are definitely some things to consider before jumping into hormetic stress exposures.

First, be aware of any current health issues. Consult your doctor if you need to, especially before beginning any new fitness regimen or exposing yourself to extreme temperature changes. This is essential for your safety and well-being.

Second, it is worth looking at where you’re already experiencing toxic stress. For example, are you consistently working long hours? Are you experiencing hardships that could use some support from a therapist? Taking an inventory of where you’re already experiencing stress is helpful because it allows you to see where you can enhance your well-being by replacing forms of toxic stress with hormetic stress.

If you feel that your current levels of stress have you in a crisis, please reach out for help. Reach out to a crisis hotline or call 911 if you're experiencing an emergency.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057-1072. doi: 10.17179/excli2017-480

  2. Epel ES. The geroscience agenda: Toxic stress, hormetic stress, and the rate of aging. Ageing Res Rev. 2020;63:101167. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2020.101167

  3. Kyriazis M, Kiourti E. Video games and other online activities may improve health in ageing. Front Med. 2018;5:8. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2018.00008

  4. Epel ES. The geroscience agenda: Toxic stress, hormetic stress, and the rate of aging. Ageing Res Rev. 2020;63:101167. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2020.101167

By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.