Times interview with Ian about The Stress Test

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When the eminent neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson set out to find out whether Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ was really true, it wasn’t just an abstract intellectual journey but a personal one.

His close friend of 25 years had recently been horrifically injured in a cycling accident, yet went on to defy doctors’ expectations in spectacular fashion by walking – and cycling – again after a limb amputation and other major injuries.

How, wondered Professor Robertson, had his friend managed to survive and prosper after such life-changing stress yet some of his patients hadn’t managed to cope with much more objectively minor setbacks like losing their jobs or failing an exam?

The result of the four-year investigation is his new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure can make you Stronger and Sharper, published next week [June 16] and it contains lessons for all of us. “My friend was one of those people who, through an act of will and optimism, managed to defy expectations. But I think we all have the capacity to do that,” says Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, one of the world’s leading researchers in neuropsychology.

Whether stress is good for you or damages you is a hotly contested topic in academic circles. The default position until recently was that stress was toxic: it increased your chance of getting ill (and dying), it caused depression, damaged brain cells and aged you. However, more recent research has shown that stress can be life-prolonging: it shows you are pursuing meaningful goals and engaging with life, which protected your health – and brain. A study last month [May] from the University of Texas showed that the over 50s who rated their lives as busiest had the highest brain function and best memories.

So, is it a case of a little stress being good but too much being bad? Not necessarily, concludes Professor Robertson. It’s not so much the scale of the stress that’s important, but how we react to it: whether we view it as a threat or a challenge, whether it makes us retreat into ourselves or push forward.

He describes stress as a kind of energy – the ancient ‘fight or flight’ response – and those who manage to turn it to their advantage have harnessed the brain’s power to shape itself by experience. “We have between our ears the most complex entity in the known universe yet many people don’t realise the power they have to control their mood and emotions,” he says. “Often, quite small changes to your mindset can make a powerful difference.

“If there’s one message I want to get across it’s that most people have the capacity to control the contents of their consciousness through some quite simple mind management.”

That’s why he’s concerned about the current ‘epidemic’ – as he sees it – of prescriptions for anti-depressants. “What’s the underlying message when you medicate yourself? You’re saying you are not in control of your mind, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Obviously there are extreme clinical cases of depression where medication is necessary, but there are millions and millions of people being medicated for states of mind that would never have been medicated 20 years ago.

“Tough times offer us an opportunity to strengthen us but it depends on our ability to harness our brain’s power.”

These are the keys to turning stress to your advantage:

Be confident and don’t doubt your ability

An intriguing experiment at Chicago University revealed the importance of confidence in the face of stress. A group of students equally good at maths were given arithmetic problems to solve in front of an audience, but one half were confident about their maths abilities and the other half weren’t. During the test, all students produced more of the stress hormone cortisol, but in the maths-anxious group the more stressed they were the worse they did. However, the more cortisol the confident group produced, the better they did.

It’s explained by what psychologists call the Yerkes-Dodson curve of arousal, a U-shaped curve where if you increase arousal/alertness up to a certain point performance gets better, but there’s a tipping point at which further increases cause a slump in performance.

“Stress is actually a kind of energy in the brain and the body that can be harnessed, and the maths-confident group managed to do that. But the other group, because they were anxious beforehand, the anxiety of the test pushed them over the curve – beyond that performance ‘sweet spot’,” explains Robertson.

Just saying ‘I feel confident’ before something stressful won’t work: your brain won’t believe it. But activating the left frontal lobe of your brain (associated with positive behaviours) can help, research shows. You can do this by gently squeezing a rubber ball in your right hand for 45 seconds, then release for 15 seconds and repeat; studies have shown it boosts activity in the left front part of the brain.

Adopting a ‘power pose’ (head up, squared shoulders, arms spread in a space-occupying position) can work, silly as it sounds, because it raises testosterone levels and hence boosts dopamine activity in the brain, which make you feel more in charge. “I remember getting ready to give a TED talk in front of 2,000 people – those things look casual but they’re incredibly difficult,” Robertson recalls. “I was pacing backstage when my phone buzzed and it was a text from my son Niall saying ‘I hope you’re doing your power pose’. It hadn’t occurred to me, so I did it and strode on to the stage and gave a nerveless performance.” Why does it work? “A power pose can change the chemistry of your brain: you may feel like jelly inside but you can trick your brain into creating the internal state which comes from the external posture you are adopting.”

Don’t let your mind wander

The ability to focus your mind on the job in hand – even if that job is unpleasant – is critical to making stress work for you. “The evidence is, if you are cleaning the toilet and your mind is focused on it, on average you will be happier than someone sitting on a yacht in the Mediterranean engaged in unaware wind-wandering,” says Professor Robertson. Why? Because when it’s wandering, the mind will tend to drift towards negative thoughts and memories: “Negative thoughts involve unresolved conflicts and the brain hates unresolved conflicts so it’s drawn to try to sort them out.”

Our minds wander on average 160 times a day, and this kind of unfocused worrying during stressful times can lead to anxious thoughts which can spiral into a vicious cycle of anxiety/procrastination/poor performance. The answer is to train our attention. “If you are in a state of anxiety about a work presentation or deadline, you can say to yourself, ‘I’m going to focus my attention for the next minute on this’. Attention is like an untrained puppy: you don’t ask it to sit for five minutes because it couldn’t manage it, but you ask it to sit for five seconds then reward it. You do it a few times then it gets a biscuit if it sits for seven seconds, then 10 seconds and so on. Exactly the same principle applies to attention: you reward yourself, then try focusing for a bit longer. Do that a few times and you will strengthen your brain’s ability to control the emotional content of your mind.”

At stressful times, it helps to focus your attention before going to sleep on three good things that have happened that day, even it’s just a great cup of coffee or a 30-second conversation with a friend. “If you choose to bias yourself for that last hour before sleep you have a reduced chance of waking up, heart pounding, at 5am,” he says. Choosing small, positive memories makes it easier for the brain to throw up further positive thoughts in a kind of spiral effect.

Set small goals to keep going

Those able to pull themselves out of difficult situations and thrive – like Professor Robertson’s cyclist friend – have one important thing in common: the ability to keep ploughing on, a kind of grim determination driving them forwards even when there’s no clear goal in sight. It’s exactly summed up in the last words of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Neuroscientists call this relentless push onwards your ‘approach’ system, and it’s controlled from the brain’s left frontal lobes. Research shows that those with more activity in that part of the brain showed more approach, reward-oriented behaviours and hence higher moods with less anxiety and depression. Those with more activity in the right side tended to retreat in the face of stress (‘avoidance’) and experience higher anxiety. Often a vicious cycle of retreat-anxiety-further retreat begins, which Robertson has observed in his patients. That’s why it’s particularly important to be able to go into approach mode after a stressful or frightening experience

Some people are naturally more ‘approach’ types. But everyone can strengthen their brain’s approach system by setting small goals for themselves when faced with something stressful. It’s a bit like the technique of ‘graded exposure’ used to treat phobias. Robertson had a patient who was so terrified of snakes she couldn’t be in a room where electrical wires ‘snaked’ on the floor. He first set her the goal of being in a room with snaking wires for 30 minutes, then staying in the same room but with added coils of rope, then looking at a picture of snakes, gradually progressing to touching a live snake. “Managing the first task gave her a feeling of accomplishment and with that came chemical changes in the brain’s reward network – the release of dopamine, which works like a natural anti-anxiety drug. That energised her to be able to face up to the next challenge.

“Goal-setting has such a powerful effect: it gives the brain mini-infusions of dopamine and keeps it ‘going on’ in approach mode rather than retreating into avoidance – as long as the goal is small and achievable. If it’s too big, you risk a constant feeling of failure.”

Pretend anxiety is excitement

The symptoms of anxiety – a fast pulse, dry mouth, sweating, churning stomach – are very similar to those of excitement, and you can use this to your advantage when doing something stressful, as research at the University of Pennsylvania proved. Scientists put volunteers into various stressful situations, such as singing karaoke in front of strangers and doing maths tests under pressure. They wore heart monitors, and could see their heartrate on a monitor during the task. Beforehand, a third of the group said aloud, ‘I feel anxious’, a third said, ‘I feel calm’ and the final third said, ‘I feel excited’.

The ‘excited’ group felt more confident and also performed better than the other two, but saying ‘I feel calm’ had zero effect on calmness. Why? “Saying I feel calm is a patent lie to yourself because your symptoms show you are anything but. But it’s not implausible to say ‘I am excited’ because the symptoms are almost identical,” says Robertson. “By saying, ‘I am excited’ they were rebranding this energy and conjuring a new mental context for themselves which changed one emotion – anxiety – into another: excitement.”

But why did it make them perform better? Because they felt they were taking on a challenge rather than facing a threat, which set up a series of changes to the chemistry of the brain. This challenge mindset puts your brain into ‘approach mode’. “This increases dopamine activity, which focuses your attention and sharpens you mentally, and that biochemical boost in turn sharpens your performance.”

You have to feel you can control what’s happening

For you to prosper in times of stress, you have to feel you have some control over your life and what happens to you – the opposite of assuming victim status by complaining, ‘It’s not fair!’ The patients Professor Robertson found he took longest to help were those who believed their problems were caused by external forces and were therefore completely beyond their control, such as 22-year-old Joe, a sporty, handsome, clever type with a blessed childhood, who had fallen apart after a few setbacks: his girlfriend dumped him, his parents separated and he failed a university exam. He ended up leaving college and drifting between low-paid jobs and smoking too much cannabis. “He didn’t have to exert control in his past life because it had gone so well. That’s a general finding – that people who have had no adversity in the first part of their lives end up less emotionally robust than those with some adversity (although those with the most adversity suffer the same as those with none). So there’s some truth in that old public school idea of toughening you up when young.” He says research shows that teenagers with Saturday jobs end up more emotionally resilient as adults than those without; it’s certainly a lesson for parents not to over-protect their children.

Clearly, we can’t choose our parents or how stressful our childhoods were. But we can avoid fixed theories about ourselves, either positive (‘I’m clever’) or negative (‘I’m no good at getting on with people’). Fixed thinking means that when adversity strikes we don’t feel we can do anything to help ourselves. “Joe had always been told by his parents how clever he was so when he failed that exam it was not a mere failure it was such a threat to his ego that he spent years running away. Something similar applied to his personality – he had never known what it was like to be rejected or to have to work at being accepted by others. His glowing personality was a fixed ‘thing’, something he was born with so when his parents split up and his girlfriend left him he didn’t believe he could do anything to change his situation.”

Those who view their personality and attributes as malleable – and therefore under their control – do much better when the going gets tough (research shows students with malleable views of their maths skills progress more in a year than those with a fixed view, no matter what their actual abilities are). And those with a strong sense of internal control produce far less of the stress hormone cortisol when faced by stressful events. One study even showed that the ‘right’ kind of stressful situation actually made the brain sharper: a group in their 70s who had experienced the serious illness of a partner were cognitively sharper than those who hadn’t- probably because they had to ‘step up’ and take control and make decisions. But those who had experienced other stressful situations, such as the death of a grandchild, had no corresponding rise in cognitive powers, probably because they felt no control, he says.

Constantly re-appraise yourself

People who have suffered a life-changing personal trauma and come out of the other side manage it because they’ve re-appraised their life and their dreams, like Professor Robertson’s patient Gerry, an industrial engineer who suffered brain-damage after a piece of concrete fell on him. After months of intense grief and depression, he took up painting and eventually learned to take pleasure in the everyday moments of life. He’d done it by re-appraising his sense of self and his goals.

“We all, ultimately, have to make adjustments like Gerry’s,” says Professor Robertson. “Everyone reaches a point in their life when he or she is no longer ‘top dog’. That’s why it’s important for all of us to find a sense of ‘self’ that doesn’t depend on money or success at work.”

Gerry, and survivors like him, learned to look at themselves in a slightly distanced way, to be able to say ‘I am not my legs/I am not my job’. We can all practise distancing to reappraise our life’s goals and find a new basis for our self-esteem. Some fascinating research in Illinois found that lottery winners took the same enjoyment from everyday pleasures as paraplegics did, one year on from their life-changing experiences. “Self-reappraisal is hard to do but if you practise you can get better at it. It means detaching yourself a little from yourself and observing your own behaviour. The brain has a remarkable ability to watch itself watching.”

* The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper is published on June 16 by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99