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 Ö would you do it?
it involved embracing what we all to our utmost to steer clear
of ó namely, stress?
always a catch. Think about it though ó 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
statement, Robertson says, "has always intrigued
me." Heís also fond of quoting golfer Tiger Woods:
"Iíve always said the day Iím not nervous playing is
the day I quit."
stress before a golf tournament isnít exactly a
life-or-death situation, but the premise is along the same
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.
itís an opportunity or stress is hugely under our
about it: A pounding heart, dry mouth, sweaty skin, churning
stomach could be signs of anxiety ó or of excitement, fear,
anger, sexual attraction, he says. "We only know what
emotion weíre having by interpreting these nonspecific
arousal symptoms in context."
takeaway? If youíre 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.
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."
not, he emphasizes, talking about "severe and prolonged
stress." Heís instead talking about the kind thatís
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 Robertsonís friend his
right arm, smashed both his knees, and almost took his life.
morning he woke up after surgery," Robertson recalls,
"I flew in from Dublin and found myself putting my head
on his forehead and saying, ĎWhat doesnít kill us makes us
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, ĎIím going to beat
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 ó along with
Robertsonís self-described "Pollyanna" nature and
his extensive research into brain damage and subsequent
rehabilitation ó led to the writing of his latest book.
enough," he says, "the brain needs to be challenged
to be improved."
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 ó
except for one group: those "who had had one, two or
three stressful life events during that period," he says.
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."
hypothesis: "If youíre in your 70s and living quite a
sedentary way of life, things are predictable and routine; youíre
not challenged. But if your wife or husband has a stroke, as
horrible as that is, youíre being challenged and called upon
to solve all sorts of new problems," he says.
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. "Itís
sprayed out if someone is frightening us, sexually attracted
to us, says something unexpected. Itís our brain shaking out
of the hum-de-dum."
properly conceived of, is a challenge that can be incredibly
enriching for the brain."
something we parents need to take to heart. Because despite
how much we want to shield children from lifeís pressures,
doing so does them no favors, Robertson says.
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.
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 co-worker.
learn itís 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 youíre not the much admired, glowing center
of someoneís world."
crazy as this may sound, how adults deal with back pain can be
related to stress they did or didnít 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
can we do to leverage stress to its utmost advantage? It can
be as easy as breathing, Robertson says.
tell people to take five long, low breaths in and out,"
he says. "Then I ask, ĎDo you feel any different?í
Ninety percent of the time they say yes. I say youíve just
changed the chemistry of your brain."
that chemistry, he says, "will help you build confidence
and believe in your ability of control."
a few other ways:
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 ó something that challenges you to a degree and
gives you a feeling of accomplishment to have completed.
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. Thatís why standing straight,
standing tall, letís fake it till we make it is what we need
to do. Trick your brain into creating corresponding emotions.
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 youíre
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."
about stressful situations youíll face in the next month, he
says. A difficult conversation with a partner maybe, or a
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 wonít
have to try to remember how to handle it. It will be a