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.”
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“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 BrainHealth, 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.”
The takeaway? 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 BrainHealth 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.
“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, follow-up 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 favors, 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.
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.”
▪ Take five long, low breaths in and out. Then I ask, “Do you feel any different?”
▪ Set goals for yourself that stretch you just a little, such as leaving the house and walking 200 yards down the street.
▪ Stand up straight. When you feel low and depressed, your body hunches, which triggers a similar internal state in the brain.
▪ 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.”
▪ Think about upcoming stressful situations. Visualize it. When your heart starts beating and your stomach churning, practice those techniques.