Who needs stress? We all do. Here’s why

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - LES­LIE BARKER

If you could do some­thing to de­crease your risk of mem­ory fail­ure, to in­crease your self-con­fi­dence, to be a bet­ter pub­lic speaker, to im­prove your brain, to help you deal with back pain, to bust out of your com­fort zone, to make your chil­dren more re­silient ... would you do it?

What if it in­volved em­brac­ing what we all to our ut­most to steer clear of — namely, stress?

Yeah, al­ways a catch. Think about it though — which Ir­ish psy­chol­o­gist Ian Robert­son, au­thor of “The Stress Test: How Pres­sure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper,” has done as well as stud­ied quite ex­ten­sively. And you might re­mem­ber quot­ing, oh once or twice, Ger­man philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

The state­ment, Robert­son says, “has al­ways in­trigued me.” He’s also fond of quot­ing golfer Tiger Woods: “I’ve al­ways said the day I’m not ner­vous play­ing is the day I quit.”

Granted, stress be­fore a golf tour­na­ment isn’t ex­actly a life-or-death sit­u­a­tion, but the premise is along the same lines.

“All per­form­ers and mu­si­cians and sports per­form­ers know you need that edge,” says Robert­son who, as the T. Boone Pick­ens Dis­tin­guished Sci­en­tist at the Cen­ter for Brain Health, spends part of his year at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dal­las in­sti­tute and part in Ire­land. “Whether it’s an op­por­tu­nity or stress is hugely un­der our con­trol.”

Think about it: A pound­ing heart, dry mouth, sweaty skin, churn­ing stom­ach could be signs of anx­i­ety — or of ex­cite­ment, fear, anger, sex­ual at­trac­tion, he says. “We only know what emo­tion we’re hav­ing by in­ter­pret­ing these non-spe­cific arousal symp­toms in con­text.”

The take-away? If you’re about to give a pre­sen­ta­tion or take a new class or face an­other chal­lenge, in­stead of say­ing, “I am anx­ious,” say out loud, “I am ex­cited.” That switches the brain from avoid­ance mind­set into chal­lenged mind­set, he says.

As he says in an in­ter­view with Brain Mat­ters, the Cen­ter for Brain Health pub­li­ca­tion, “mod­er­ate stress, prop­erly han­dled, in­creases alert­ness, which in turn helps brain cir­cuits func­tion more ef­fi­ciently.”

He’s not, he em­pha­sizes, talk­ing about “se­vere and pro­longed stress.” He’s in­stead talk­ing about the kind that’s in­her­ent with be­ing hu­man. Job prob­lems. Re­la­tion­ship prob­lems. So­cial set­backs. Money wor­ries. Try­ing some­thing new. And, in the case of his best friend, be­ing run over by a bus while cy­cling. The ac­ci­dent cost Robert­son’s friend his right arm, smashed both his knees, and al­most took his life.

“The morn­ing he woke up af­ter surgery,” Robert­son re­calls, “I flew in from Dublin and found my­self putting my head on his fore­head and say­ing, ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’”

The act, Robert­son says, was “to­tally un­premed­i­tated.” But later, his friend told Robert­son “it was like a surge of elec­tric­ity through his brain, that it elec­tri­fied him. He was barely con­scious. I re­mem­ber him strug­gling up, his head barely off the pil­low, and say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to beat this.’”

His friend is now long-dis­tance cy­cling again. And while Robert­son em­pha­sizes that he takes no credit for the “amaz­ing, amaz­ing jour­ney” to health, that episode — along with Robert­son’s self-de­scribed “Pollyanna” na­ture and his ex­ten­sive re­search into brain dam­age and sub­se­quent re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion — led to the writ­ing of his lat­est book.

“Strangely enough,” he says, “the brain needs to be chal­lenged to be im­proved.”

He cites as an ex­am­ple a study of peo­ple in their 70s who were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the be­gin­nings of mem­ory fail­ure. Two years later, fol­lowup tests showed a steep de­cline in mem­ory — ex­cept for one group: those “who had had one, two or three stress­ful life events dur­ing that pe­riod,” he says.

“Se­vere stress does cause im­pair­ment in mem­ory,” Robert­son con­tin­ues. “But in this group, mod­er­ate stres­sors ac­tu­ally pre­served cog­ni­tive func­tion, so over the two years, they did not show a de­cline.”

His hy­poth­e­sis: “If you’re in your 70s and liv­ing quite a seden­tary way of life, things are pre­dictable and rou­tine; you’re not chal­lenged. But if your wife or hus­band has a stroke, as hor­ri­ble as that is, you’re be­ing chal­lenged and called upon to solve all sorts of new prob­lems,” he says.

And when that hap­pens, your brain is called upon to gen­er­ate more of a neu­ro­trans­mit­ter called nor­ep­i­neph­rine. “It is a chem­i­cal sprayed into our brain when un­ex­pected things hap­pen and you have to dis­en­gage to be open to new pos­si­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the fright­en­ing and the pos­i­tive,” he says. “It’s sprayed out if some­one is fright­en­ing us, sex­u­ally at­tracted to us, says some­thing un­ex­pected. It’s our brain shak­ing out of the hum-de-dum.”

“Stress, prop­erly con­ceived of, is a chal­lenge that can be in­cred­i­bly en­rich­ing for the brain.”

Which is some­thing we par­ents need to take to heart. Be­cause de­spite how much we want to shield chil­dren from life’s pres­sures, do­ing so does them no favours, Robert­son says.

“Chil­dren or ado­les­cents who have lit­tle or no ad­ver­sity, lit­tle or no stress, end up more emo­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble, more likely to be de­pressed and not en­joy­ing life,” he says. “Peo­ple who have very lit­tle ad­ver­sity and those who have very se­vere have sim­i­lar lev­els of emo­tional dis­tur­bance later in life,” he says.

Those who have mod­er­ate stress end up more emo­tion­ally tough, he says. He gives an ex­am­ple of young peo­ple work­ing in a job in which they get rib­bing or taunts by a co­worker.

“You’ll learn it’s not the end of the world if you feel hu­mil­i­ated, not the end of the world if you fail at some­thing, not the end of the world if you’re not the much ad­mired, glow­ing cen­tre of some­one’s world.”

Plus, crazy as this may sound, how adults deal with back pain can be re­lated to stress they did or didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing child­hood. Those who had “lit­tle or se­vere stress,” he says, “are more likely to be off work, on painkillers or func­tion­ally dis­abled by back pain. Those with mod­er­ate stress have lower doses of painkillers, are less likely to off work long-term and are less likely to be dis­abled by back pain.”

So what can we do to lever­age stress to its ut­most ad­van­tage? It can be as easy as breath­ing, Robert­son says.

“I tell peo­ple to take five long, low breaths in and out,” he says. “Then I ask, ‘Do you feel any dif­fer­ent?’ Ninety per cent of the time they say yes. I say you’ve just changed the chem­istry of your brain.”

Af­fect­ing that chem­istry, he says, “will help you build con­fi­dence and be­lieve in your abil­ity of con­trol.” Here are a few other ways: Set goals for your­self that stretch you a lit­tle, he says, “goals that are nei­ther too easy nor too dif­fi­cult. Suc­cess­ful peo­ple, who in­evitably be­lieve have con­trol over their own minds, are peo­ple very, very skilled at set­ting goals in the Goldilocks zone.” It could be as seem­ingly small as get­ting out of the house and walk­ing 200 yards down the street — some­thing that chal­lenges you to a de­gree and gives you a feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment to have com­pleted.

Stand up straight. When you feel low and de­pressed, your body hunches, he says. “If we adopt a pos­ture as­so­ci­ated with de­feat or anx­i­ety, our brains will cre­ate an in­ter­nal state cor­re­spond­ing to that. That’s why stand­ing straight, stand­ing tall, let’s fake it till we make it is what we need to do. Trick your brain into cre­at­ing cor­re­spond­ing emo­tions.

Gen­tly squeeze your right hand. “The go-for­ward an­tic­i­pat­ing net­work in the brain is in the left frontal lobe,” Robert­son says. “The right hemi­sphere is more ac­tive and in­hibits the goal-set­ting part of the brain if you’re de­pressed or anx­ious. One way to give the left frontal part of your brain a boost is to squeeze your right hand for 45 sec­onds, re­lease it for 15. Com­bined with pos­ture, breath­ing and goal set­ting, you in­crease the changes of hav­ing a chal­lenged mind­set rather than re­treat­ing.”

Think about stress­ful sit­u­a­tions you’ll face in the next month, he says. A dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion with a part­ner maybe, or a pre­sen­ta­tion.

“Vi­su­al­ize it. Hear your­self,” he says. “Be in it to the ex­tent that your heart is beat­ing, your stom­ach churn­ing. Feel it now and start prac­tic­ing those tech­niques. Prac­tice them in an imag­ined sit­u­a­tion so when you ac­tu­ally come to that, you won’t have to try to re­mem­ber how to han­dle it. It will be a habit.”

Stress, prop­erly con­ceived of, is a chal­lenge that can be in­cred­i­bly en­rich­ing for the brain.


Mod­er­ate stress, if prop­erly han­dled, can in­crease alert­ness and help brain cir­cuits func­tion more ef­fi­ciently, says au­thor Ian Robert­son.

“The Stress Test: How Pres­sure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper,” by Ian Robert­son

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