Exploring the Stress Paradox to Prevent Disease

Chronic stress takes a toll on your body, but exposing cells to brief periods of stress might make them more resilient.

Can a simple breathing technique help prevent disease or even reverse symptoms of aging? Elissa Epel, PhD, and Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD, seek to answer this question in a unique study they are leading, which will investigate whether short-term, positive-stress interventions make the body and mind more resilient. 

“This study purports that putting the body through short-term stressors can result in long-term psychological and physical health benefits, and we are testing the idea with rigor and a healthy skepticism,” says Mendes. 

Chronic or long-term stress wears out cells and has been linked with depression, early aging, and the premature onset of other chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Common contributors to chronic stress include high-pressure jobs and caring for sick relatives. Epel believes practices that promote so-called “stress resilience” may prevent or reverse the harmful changes associated with chronic or long-term stress, and the reason may lie within a process called hormesis. 

Hormesis is a dose-response phenomenon in which something that produces harmful biological effects at higher doses may produce beneficial effects at lower doses. Call it a “stress paradox,” in which exposing cells to brief periods of stress makes them more resilient to long-term stress and less likely to die. 

The study will focus on the physiological and mood effects of three types of controlled stress: an intense breathing technique, a high-level aerobic workout, and a meditation practice. Epel and Mendes’s team is testing how the three techniques, when practiced daily, affect women with varying levels of psychological stress or depression. They will observe the effects of the techniques on stress, mood, and physical and cellular health, as well as the women’s responses to stressors, including how well their bodies regulate and maintain balance in the autonomic nervous system, immune system, and metabolism. The study was to run through the summer of 2020, but data collection was delayed by the pandemic. (Women who are interested in participating can find more information here.)  

The John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation’s generous gift of $1.1 million will advance this research and provide new levels of understanding about how best to use alternative strategies for combatting stress and depression. The foundation funds research on how holistic treatments such as exercise, nutrition, healthy lifestyle choices, and mind-body practices benefit mental health 

“The most commonly used treatments for depression are pharmaceuticals,” says Epel. “But now it’s clear that they don’t work for the vast majority of people, the side effects can be serious, and they are hard to taper off of. This underscores the need for both prevention and behavioral treatments.” 

“We are very excited to sponsor this UCSF study,” says Victor Brick, co-founder of the Brick Foundation. “We want to change the way people treat mental health, and we think that evidence-based research is the best way to do that.” 

Elissa Epel is a professor and vice chair of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the UCSF Aging, Metabolism, and Emotion Center. Wendy Berry Mendes is a professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Sarlo-Ekman Professor in the Study of Human Emotion.

Your giving inspires a world of good health.

Give to UCSF