Hormesis: a theoretical phenomenon in which something that produces harmful biological effects at moderate to high doses may produce beneficial effects at low doses
Americans have in inadequate view of suffering - Helmut Thielicke
It is only through great suffering and great beauty that we are changed - Simone Weil
Recently there was a group of women in my backyard debriefing their backpacking hike and overnight camp out at a high alpine lake. Led by my wife and daughter, they built their own shelter space, experienced solitude, a bit of cold and heat, the scents of fir, hemlock, wildflowers, and the ‘end of summer’ fecundity of the forest floor. They fasted from food, phones, books, and everything else that, in our modern world, insulates our bodies and souls from revelations and realities intended by our Creator to shake us awake to the beauty, power, abundance, and fierceness of the world in which we live. Some of them found the hike and outdoor experience to be a push far beyond their comfort zone, and yet also found that space beyond comfort to be, counterintuitively, life giving.
In short, they experienced “hormesis”, a biological term which refers to the shock that comes from receiving, in a small dose, something that would be dangerous, even fatal in a large dose. In this case, for example, a night alone out in the cold is hormesis; difficult, but life giving and strengthening. But an entire winter in these same mountains without heat and shelter would have a different name: your funeral!
A dose of something that’s a bit painful and challenging, it turns out, is good for us (consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials). It’s transformative, because our body and soul is made to encounter and adapt to acute (temporary) stress, leaving us stronger and, in some instances wiser, after we’ve experienced the stressor than we were before.
This, it appears, is the way God intends it in this world. Ecclesiastes says there’s a time for everything, and by extrapolation, I take that to mean there’s a time to be hungry, cold, thirsty, alone, cut off from social media, and much more that is temporarily uncomfortable. What’s amazing, though,is that as our bodies adapt to these discomforts, we come to a point of accepting our circumstance. When that happens, our soul and body open to hosts of new revelations and realities. We begin to be present to the beauty and infinity of creation, right in the midst of discomfort, and our souls are fed. There’s also a ton of evidence that our bodies are strengthened as well. Time in the forest results in increased immune function, increased heart rate variability, decreased resting pulse, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. A cold plunge (done properly!!) leads to a consistently lower resting pulse. Intermittent fasting, aerobic exercise, and eating real food all have these same positive effects (again, when done properly).
All of it, though, is predicated on our willingness to extend ourselves outside our normal comfort zones. That willingness, however, is less common than at any time in human history. Early on our ancestors didn’t have much of a choice. They had to build a fire, haul water, find their own food, and sleep in minimal shelters. All of it meant exposure to cold and heat, risk and beauty. People lived ‘in the midst’ of creation, rather than viewing nature as something to visit. They didn’t have a choice.
The last few hundred years we in the developed world have perfected the art of insulating our lives from creation and all forms of discomfort. For some, avoiding pain has become a primary life value. We’ve ‘advanced’ to the point where our days can be spent in the insulated, temperature controlled comfort of various shelters: home to car, car to office, office to restaurant, and back to the home where we started. Done! All our spaces are temperature controlled to protect us from any discomfort. Along the way we’ll take a shower that’s within the narrow range of our comfort, and insulate ourselves with various layers of clothing. Never cold. Never hungry. Rarely out of breath. Welcome to modernity.
Our obsession with avoiding suffering gives us short term comfort, no doubt. But the cumulative effect of our lack of exercise, exposure to cold and heat, and our choices of food that’s not fabricated for economic reasons (addictive taste, shelf life preservation, or both) has been costly. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, a host of auto-immune diseases, and a battery of mental health challenges - all these pathologies are exponentially higher among civilized cultures in contrast to hunter-gatherers. They’re even called “diseases of civilization” by some.
“I thought this was a Bible based web site! Why is he talking about this stuff?”
There are two answers:
God cares about our bodies - “the spirit gives life to our mortal bodies” is an important little truth articulated by Paul the Apostle to help us understand the ecosystem of our lives. The relationship of spirit and body is such that when our spirits are overwhelmed by fear, lust, shame, anxiety, or a host of other maladies, “the body keeps score” as this book articulates so powerfully. Our emotional and psychic pain gets imprinted in our bodies, showing up in symptoms that include insomnia, high blood pressure, inflammation, and chronic stress. Because our culture tends to view the body mechanistically, we often seek to fix things by simply addressing the body part in question. Inflammation? High blood pressure? Sleep disorder? “There’s a drug for that” is an overwhelmingly common response.
While there is certainly a time and place for pharmacological and surgical solutions, we’re not cars or computers. We’re not a collection of body parts that exist independently, so swapping out broken parts or medicating away our pain isn’t the same thing as healing. We’re holistic. Spirit, soul, and body exist in interdependency, with each single part, each life event and our responses to them, each food choice, exercise choice, sleep pattern, and sexual choice contributing to state of the whole. As a result, bitterness and fear, whose origins are emotional and spiritual, become root causes of bodily ailments, while lack of movement and poor food choices lead to a limitation of expressing our divine life in the spirit.
This is why a holistic commitment to our spirit, soul, body transformation is vital. It’s not healthy to view prayer and bible study as the pinnacle of life. Neither are running a marathon or summiting a mountain. Healthy choices and habits in every area, spirit, soul, and body, are needed if we’re going to live wholly holy.
There are two challenges regarding this: First each of us have favorite areas in which we seek to thrive. One focuses on cross-fit and diet, another on therapy to deal with unhealthy emotions, another on mediation to become more rooted and grounded in their identity in Christ, or to find peace. None of these, though, can stand alone as the path to “life abundant” as Jesus articulated the invitation, because abundance means every area is on the journey of transformation. The means we need to develop habits that feed the whole. Though that might sound daunting, the reality is that it isn’t as difficult as it sounds, if only we can get over the other challenge: aversion to suffering and self denial.
It’s important to note here lots of things fall under the category of suffering. While it might include persecution for one’s faith or ideology (or sexual identity, race, nationality, economic status, or even fashion sense), it can also include the various trials and afflictions that come with living in a fallen world, things like sickness, broken relationships, and work or money challenges. Suffering, though, also includes lots of what are simply bodily sensations. Hunger is suffering, in the sense that your body wants to eat, but you say no. Exercise is suffering, in the sense that your body wants to stop, but you say no. Cold is suffering, in the sense that your body wants the comfort of warmth but you say no. What if we were to make some habits of choosing these forms of suffering? Each of these create a short term stress response, but when the suffering is embraced, and then ends at the appropriate time, the body adapts, coming out stronger on the other side. Hormesis. Life wins!
To put it another way, we’re made to experience the full range: abundance and hunger, joy and sorrow, cold and heat, satisfaction and longing. When we cut ourselves off from one side of those realities due to our aversion to suffering, we’re unable to experience the other side fully as well.
Aversion to suffering isn’t just a physical health issue - it’s a spiritual issue (attraction/aversion)
Since, in these instances of fasting, exercise, and cold exposure, your human will is involved, it’s not just the body that comes out stronger - it’s the soul too. You become stronger emotionally, better able to sit in places of conflict and vulnerability, better able to engage in hard conversations, better able to tell the truth and confess stuff, better able to identify anxiety patterns and move away from them. You become better spiritually too, especially if you’ve used your times of denying the body's demands for comfort by leaning into your spiritual identity. Jesus did this during his forty fast in the wilderness. David did this regularly in his shepherding experiences. Paul did this, at the least, during his sea voyages, including shipwrecks and “a night and day spent in the sea”. If all of human history is represented by one hour, our capacity to live in climate controlled environments, remain sedentary more than active, and enjoy any kind of food we want on demand is about one second of that hour.
In other words, though the way we’re living seems normal, it’s an aberration. We’re made to move and experience cold, hunger, thunderstorms, direct contact with rain and moon and stars, and real food. It’s no coincidence that our new ways of living, while physically comfortable, have become a Petri dish in which pathologies like addiction, isolation, unbridled greed, self loathing, violence, and diseases of civilization are growing.
If we’re called to declare by our lives that there’s a better way of living possible, shouldn’t we be embodying a return to the rhythms of creation and the full expressions of life that we find through immersion in nature, exposure to cold, moving our bodies, and eating real food?
To do this, I need to get over the notion that being cold, hungry, and out of breath are bad. They’re only bad in large doses. Small doses, though, shake us awake, and leave us strong on the other side. In addition, these practices empower us to overcome the attraction/aversion paradigm that so often governs our lives. Instead of running from hard conversations, or confession, or the challenges of a certain project, we jump in knowing that, just like a cold plunge, it’s a temporary part of life, but a part that will make us stronger on the other side.
One of the biggest dangers in embarking on any intentional steps towards hormetic stress (fasting, cold plunges, aerobic exercise) is our temptation to do too much too soon. I address this in a video about how our tendency to compare ourselves hinders, rather than helps our journey of transformation.
In future installments in this series, I’ll address the dangers of idolizing health, and specific steps you can take to more fully engage the body in hormetic stress, which is life giving to body, soul, and spirit.
For now, just know that the next time you’re cold, or hungry, or out of breath (again… always done properly!)… welcome it. We’re made for hormesis, and its presence in our lives will make us better people.
In this video, I address the three foundational elements needed to make habit changes: