What do inflammatory news cycles, social disintegration, surges in chronic disease, and spats with your spouse have in common? They are all major causes of stress, and more specifically, of distress. Why the distinction? Contrary to popular belief, not all stress is created equal. Although prolonged distress, like that experienced in the examples above, can lead to negative short-term and long-term consequences, its counterpart has actually been linked to improved health, increased longevity, and even better survival.
Eustress, a term first coined by Hans Selye, is any stress response that is initiated by positive stimulating factors. According to Mills, Reiss and Dombeck (2018), it can be distinguished by several key characteristics. For example, it:
- Motivates and focuses energy
- Is short-term
- Is perceived as within our coping abilities
- Feels exciting
- Improves performance
So, a conflict with your significant other might be short-term, but it certainly doesn’t focus your energy or feel very invigorating. Right?
Goldilocks, Stress, and Your Sweet Spot
Stress exists on a continuum, and maybe you’re experiencing this firsthand as we approach the holiday season. Remember the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears?” Well, it turns out that this principle applies to stress, too! Too little or too much can lead to distress, and its negative side effects like impaired attention and boredom or overwhelm and burnout. In contrast, one aspect of eustress is its tendency to fall within the range of “just right.”
Let’s take a look at the holiday season and compare it with those characteristics listed above. The holidays:
- Can focus energy; you probably have a few clear goals in mind.
- Are short-term; they don’t last year-round and (luckily) an end is in sight.
- Are likely within your coping abilities; you’ve done them before and you know you can do them again.
- Can feel exciting; you know you will be socializing and spreading jolly cheer.
However, what happens when the stress around the holidays tip-toes past “just enough” into the territory of “too much”? Like, when you’re trying to calculate how to evenly distribute your time with your parents, your in-laws, and your childhood friends. Or, there are fifteen presents to purchase and your finances this season are more strapped than usual. Or, you can’t stand being around Aunt Peggy because she is constantly asking about when you’ll finally have kids, why you haven’t lost those last few pounds, or what political propaganda (we mean, newstream) you’re watching these days. Kind of seems like the eustress just morphed into downright distress, right?
While we can’t clear off your calendar or have a chat with Aunty Peggy (cough cough, but you can give her a few Cured Raw Caps to take the edge off), we can help you replace your distress with eustress using one powerful health hack!
Boost Your Body’s Eustress with Colder Temperatures
Cold water immersion has been used for thousands upon thousands of years. In fact, Hippocrates was known to say that water therapy “allays lassitude;” meaning it releases mental and physical weakness. Like exercise or rhythmic breathing, a plunge in an ice bath or cold blast in your shower are powerful ways to induce eustress.
Exposure to cold activates the sympathetic nervous system, increases the levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline circulating through your bloodstream, and flushes the brain with fresh blood. There are current studies researching these specific effects and the potential of cold water therapy as a treatment for anxiety and depression — but the benefits don’t end there.
A 2-minute cold exposure also results in a cascade of immune and hormonal responses, which can lead to enhanced immunity, improved performance and recovery, improved sleep, improved energy, increased metabolism, decreased inflammation, and more.
So, what are you waiting for? This holiday season, when you feel the distress accumulating, try taking a cold shower! You may realize that just two short minutes of cold can send you back into your sweet spot, spark a healthy dose of eustress, and result in some pretty major health benefits.