Hormesis occurs when a bit of a harmful substance or a life or physical stressor comes into our experience/body in just the right dose or the right intensity. This exposure stimulates our body or spirit to fight back, to get stronger, better, healthier and, therefore, better prepared for any future stronger/larger doses.
How do We Find Our Level?
Most people understand this concept if we exercise with weights, because hormesis explains the benefit of doing the right number of reps (repetitions) with each machine or free weight. Athletic coaches and trainers urge us on, but only to the point of increasing returns. As soon as we get to accruing diminishing returns, we are to stop. How much fatigue, weakness, pain, burning, failure are “too much”?
This is exactly what we need to learn about ourselves in order to avoid hurting ourselves during a workout (or relationship). Water flows downhill; without a hill, it’s stagnant. With rolling hills, meaning, many different experiences, we/water finds its level at every resting place.
Feast or Famine?
Hormesis also governs the benefits of fasting or reductions in calories. Again, only to the point of increasing returns: relieving our digestion for a period of time, cleaning out our systems, creating a new “set point” for our metabolism and weight are all beneficial, but must occur through some stress on our body by reducing our intake of food.
It’s all right to be isolated (or hungry) for a specified time; the deprivation we experience increases our self-reliance, our independence, our ability to tune in and understand ourselves. We can actually feel pain (enormous pain, sometimes) and still be in the benefit “zone,” but if we continue to be damaged for too long, we risk incurring long-term, even irreparable harm (muscle deterioration, mental fuzziness, weakness, anemia, distorted self-esteem, inappropriate detachment, odd cravings, bizarre relationship choices, etc.).
How do We Know When to Jump Out of the Pot?
Most importantly for our understand of ourselves, hormesis shows us that we are not wrong to overcompensate for challenges because that stretching and pushing ourselves beyond our “comfort zone” help us get tougher, smarter, stronger, more confident, more capable for the next encounter with that circumstance. However, if we continually seek or exist in toxic situations, we risk grave harm, even death.
The worst is a situation, an “exposure” to a “toxin” that is gradually getting higher. This is quite dangerous and terrible. Like the frog put into cold water in a pot whose water is slowly heated to boiling, we, too, won’t jump out or even realize we should remove ourselves from the exposure until it’s too late: we get cooked.
We have to know when to exert the effort, when to jump, to jump while we still can. Are you a “glutton for punishment” or an appropriate risk-taker?
What Risks are “Worth” the Experience?
How much hormesis stimulation (how large a toxic dose) is just right and how much is too much? The key here is that hormesis is a favorable response to low exposures of some toxin or stressor. We are not set up to manage moderate or high exposures, especially over prolonged periods of time, without being damaged. With low doses of the potentially harmful substance, most can get stronger; with high doses, almost all die.
A few bad experiences or relationships are manageable. We learn, we grow, we get stronger from these. However, frequently or chronically occurring destructive circumstances ruin us. We do not have unlimited capacities: we do contract an illness, like cancer; we do get depressed, sometimes to the point of suicide; we do become unable to cope.
How do We know When It’s Too Much?
Here is the test. If our response to an “attack” is to become weaker or paralyzed (physically or metaphorically), hormesis is not in effect: we are just being knocked out. When we become exposed again, we will probably not survive intact.
If, when we are physically or emotionally stimulated by low doses of some toxic substance (or person), we develop greater immunity to future exposures, hormesis is working just fine.
How is YOUR heart doing?