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8/8/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: Scare Yourself for Health

Acute stress -- in short bursts -- can heal, scientists say. But watch out for chronic stress.

If you have a skin irritation or minor wound, I’m going to cure it. Seriously. All you have to do is watch this:

Scary, right? Your body has probably just gone through a bunch of changes. You might not realize it, but you are probably sweating. Your extremities might have gotten colder. Your heart rate almost assuredly went up. Your pupils may have dilated. You may have noticed these things, but one thing you probably don't know is right now your adrenal glands are pumping steroids into your body.

All of these things are evolutionary responses to stress. They are left over from our days as hunter-gatherers. Why does this matter?

Because scientists at the University of California in San Francisco have determined that if you scare the crap out of mice, their skin heals. Those hormones released from acute stress can do wonders to heal your body. They subjected mice to various skin irritants that caused three different types of rashes on the mice: contact dermatitis (like you'd get from touching something irritating), acute allergic dermatitis (like you'd get from touching poison ivy), and eczema.

[Want more Geekend health tips? Read Geekend: Doing Nothing Is Worse Than Hurting Yourself.]

Now here's the crazy part: They put some of the mice back in their cages and some of the mice in tiny boxes for 18 hours per day for four days. Obviously, this was really stressful to the mice who probably didn't like being put into tiny mouse coffins. So their bodies released hormones called glucocorticoids as part of that stress reaction I described above.

The good news is that after four days in the cooler, the mice came out with much healthier skin than their counterparts who just sat around in their cage running on their little wheels.

Yes, that was just a gratuitous mouse video. Yes, you're welcome. Anyway, those glucocorticoids did the trick with significant anti-inflammatory effects. And, of course, there are other types of inflammation this might work on, including arthritis and other chronic pain.

But before you go just scare yourself to get rid of your arthritis, there's a catch. Stress that is chronic inhibits healing in humans. One reason this might happen is that long-term stress releases other hormones that can interfere with natural anti-inflammatories. What this study showed, however, is that acute stress might be beneficial. Acute stress either overwhelms those inhibitors or keeps them from being created.

The researchers say it is way too early to show how these findings could lead to better healthcare in humans, but they do point out that current steroid treatment is often overaggressive and has negative side effects. A more natural release of hormones with anti-inflammatory effect might help.

So this is what I suggest. Start with yoga. Maybe add your pet. Studies say pets can be very soothing. Maybe yoga with your pet.

Then, right after the yoga, scare the bajeebers out of yourself with more killer clown videos. Rinse. Repeat.

In no time your skin will glow and your trick knee will thank you. Of course, then we'll have to cure your paranoia, but at least your skin will look good.

Seriously, right now there isn't an obvious practical thing we can do with this study, but it might have serious implications in the way we understand recovery from surgery, wound healing, chronic pain, and even skin disease. So while this seems silly, it has real-world value.

What do you think? Will you be trying my new scare therapy at home? What will you use to get rid of the chronic stress that is inhibiting your healing process? If they ever prove this works, what would you scare yourself with? Comment below.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 11:00:10 AM
Re: Either way it is scary
I totally agree, @SaneIT, about stress sometimes becoming a badge of honor, as if piling on more and more is somehow admirable. The good news appears to be the next generations tout work/life balance as high on their list of good-job attributes, according to several studies i've read over the years. Hope they stick to that resolve as they have families, move up the career ladder, and face the challenges life often contains. 

I recall an ex-colleague of my dad, who was a business executive. The colleague flipped one day, walked out of the job and moved to the south of France to live an existential lifestyle. Sounds great in a way, except he left his kids and wife behind. 
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 7:05:18 AM
Re: Either way it is scary
Yes we do eventually hit breaking points but you don't have to look far to see just how far physically or mentally people can be pushed before they break.  Some people will of course need to de-stress much sooner than others but even those who need more rest will eventually need less rest if they continue a pattern of stress.   It has become something of a badge of honor in the business world to be able to keep going no matter the stress level but I think it shows another weakness, not knowing when to quit.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
8/11/2014 | 7:00:39 PM
Re: Scare Yourself for Health
At first I was like 'what is Dave doing linking cheesy home-made movies on the Geekend?', but I have to admit, the eyeball in the mail slot got me pretty good. I don't know about clammy skin and adrenaline - maybe I've seen too much on the internet already. That raises a legitimate question about how stress differs for our generations compared to previous ones, doesn't it? The stereotype of the old lady fainting at an inappropriate comment (that's stress, right?)... well, compared to us, she has no idea what 'inappropriate' is. Do we have a higher threshhold for that kind of stress? Maybe that has a little something (just a little) to do with all these chronic health problems.

On a serious note, I'd definitely consider myself in the 'I'll believe it when I see it' camp. We don't know if this will bear any real fruit yet. Some people say our bodies are best at regulating themselves, and others says that's poppycock... I guess it usually turns out the truth is somewhere in the middle. Maybe this will lead to some drugs or what-have-you that kickstart a more natural healing process... or maybe it will just end up as a gimmick in the next horror game from Red Barrels (not that I'd complain). Anyway, this was a fun topic - can't wait for next week!


PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
8/11/2014 | 6:14:45 PM
Re: scaring yourself vs skin creams
@jastroff.  I think you have all the stress you need for all your life after contacting tech support.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/11/2014 | 12:09:00 PM
Re: Either way it is scary
I wonder where adrenaline ends and stress begins, in the case of athletes and performers, and others who do the same thing every day on a big stage?
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
8/11/2014 | 12:08:07 PM
Re: Either way it is scary
There's usually a breaking point, that time when you just cannot deal with a given situation any longer and that's when your body, soul, and mind reach out for alternatives -- perhaps finding another job, ideally, or not so healthily, pouring yourself into a bottle or a nervous breakdown. It's vital to find stress relievers, such as exercise or a hobby, but sometimes the only answer is to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. Even planning that exit can relieve stress!
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/11/2014 | 9:22:47 AM
Re: Either way it is scary
Humans are very good at adapting to stress so yes, as time passes the nerves are reduced, performing becomes less stressful and it takes new stressors to get a rise out of you.  When you see that breakdown in athletes over the course of a season it is typically cumulative injury.  Unfortunately being afraid to run on a bad ankle doesn't heal it between games.  Athletes play through pain because the alternative is not playing and that directly affects their source of income.  Work stress is much the same, we get used to crazy deadlines, bad bosses, loud co-workers and we adjust, but sometimes cumulative injury (not specifically stress) brings an end to a season or career.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/8/2014 | 4:50:32 PM
Re: Either way it is scary
@tgjkg- Hrm...I suspect that performers get used to certain types of stress and it isn't stress anymore. For instance, I'm sure the first 5 or 10 projects a softwsare developer does are stressful because they want to keep their job. After a while they get established and cool down. I assume Broadway performers are the same way. 

But it is true that ballplayers breakdown over the course of a season. I assumed it was from the pounding. Though i suppose it might not be. Good question. 
tjgkg
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tjgkg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2014 | 4:32:30 PM
Either way it is scary
You do need a certain amount of sress to perform well. Athletes need it as do public performers. Having said that would some one who is performing in a Broadway show every night have chronic stress? Or a baseball player who plays usually 6 days per week? Certainly the regular working stiffs have stress from their jobs, commutes and then at home. Where does it end? I have to try Yoga!
David Wagner
IW Pick
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/8/2014 | 2:43:38 PM
Re: Both at once
@Susan- That's OK. It works with wound healing, too. :)
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