Geekend: Scare Yourself for Health

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

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

August 8, 2014

4 Min Read

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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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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