Dealing with stress like a lobster would (really, it works)
Clinical psychologist and neuroscientist Professor Ian Roberts explains how we can transform our anxieties into positives – with inspiration from a member of the shellfish family…
How do lobsters – encased as they are in a hard, fixed shell – grow? The answer is that the pressure and discomfort of their soft bodies pressing up against the unyielding inner surface stimulates them to retreat under a rock to safety and painfully shed the constricting shell to grow a new, bigger one.
Occasionally they die, but in most cases they exit comfortably in their new skin – a process they have to repeat many times as they get larger.
We all have to do something similar at various points in our lives. Pressure, discomfort and pain can be crucial stimulators to taking action to face up to these stresses – failure, sickness or loss, for example – and, in the process, we can find a new direction.
‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ is the famous aphorism by the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche.
But is this true? Isn’t stress supposed to be the great corrosive that actually saps our mental and physical health, rather than making us strong?
STRESS IS RELATIVE
I had been puzzling over this statement for many years as a clinical psychologist, because, while it seemed to hit the mark for some, the reverse applied to others who I had seen crumble under small stresses. Two of my clients captured this dichotomy.
Lucy had been sent to me by her tutor. Twenty, tall, blonde, her good looks were spoiled by the dark smudges under tired eyes and a downcast, nervy appearance.
She hadn’t been sleeping properly for months, she told me, and had been losing weight because her appetite had disappeared. Her social life at university had dwindled to an occasional drink with a close friend and she had been missing lectures because she felt so exhausted in the mornings, following sleepless nights.
After nearly two hours of talking to Lucy, I discovered that these problems had emerged, more or less out of the blue, six months earlier. Before that, she had been healthy and happy for her entire life. So what had happened?
I kept checking again and again that there wasn’t something more to it, but no. Here was the cause of Lucy’s anxiety: she had, for the first time in her life, failed an exam. This ‘failure’ had floored her, psychologically speaking. Her reaction to such a relatively minor setback couldn’t have been further from ‘what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ – it was more like ‘what hurts me slightly has caused me psychological near-collapse’.
Peter was also a student. Like Lucy, he had been missing lectures – but for a quite different reason. Peter’s mother had died of cancer roughly six months before we met – a similar period of time since Lucy’s failed exam.
His father, who had lost his job because of the time he took off to care for his wife, had not coped well with her death and was drinking heavily. Financially, things were very tough and Peter had needed to step in to protect his 14-year-old sister as much as possible from the family’s misfortunes.
The tutor had been concerned that Peter might himself be suffering psychologically and that this was why he was not attending some of his lectures. But it turned out that there was a much more prosaic reason for his absence. Peter had taken on a part-time job to help the family.
And there was nothing wrong with Peter mentally speaking, either. On the contrary, the misfortune ‘has turned me around’, he told me. Before his mother became sick, Peter had been a heavy-drinking, good-time freshman who just scraped through his exams and assignments. He didn’t have any real interest in his studies and gave little thought to the future. Now this had all changed: he was focused and studying hard. He wanted to read medicine.
Peter did admit to feeling stressed at times, but there was a glint in his eye as he described how he coped with the big demands being made on him. His mother’s illness, and all the bad consequences for his family, had certainly strengthened him. So what was it about Peter that made him respond to stress in the way he did? And why did Lucy succumb to it the way she did? After more than three decades of research, I think I now understand why.
One reason was Lucy had never experienced any adversity in her life until this point – she had been top of the class, good-looking, popular, good at sports. Peter, on the other hand, had been an average student, he wasn’t particularly popular at school and had experienced some bullying, which he had coped with reasonably well.
It turns out that people similar to Lucy end up more emotionally vulnerable as adults than those who, like Peter, have had tough times in their lives. Too much adversity is as bad as little, or no, adversity, but a moderate amount toughens the psychological immune system and makes you emotionally resilient and better able to cope with – and benefit from – stress.
Lucy had never really known anxiety – the pumping heart, dry mouth, twisting stomach that many of us feel. But these symptoms are also present in a quite different emotion – excitement. Research shows that we can harness this energy by a sort of mental ju-jitsu and saying to ourselves ‘I feel excited’ rather than ‘I feel anxious’.
Stress is universal; in fact, if you don’t experience stress from time to time, you probably aren’t fulfilling your potential by stretching yourself. However, the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety – with connotations of threat and fear – can be transformed into positive energy by shifting to a mindset of challenge and anticipation.
Lucy was frightened of her symptoms but she could have used them to energise herself into passing her resit exam – which she eventually did – if she had just learned to magically turn them into excitement by saying three words: ‘I feel excited’. Peter did exactly that – he used the pressure he was under as an energiser.
Life can never be an endless round of success and happiness – sooner or later, there will always be some crisis.
With the right challenge mindset, we can learn from the lobster and prove Nietzsche right – what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger.
HOW TO FIND YOUR BALANCE
Seeing bad times as a challenge, rather than as a threat, resets a number of neurochemical switches in our brain that make us more able to solve problems. Try these tips:
Action and goals
Action can trick the brain into creating the thoughts and emotions that go with it. Setting a goal at the edge of your comfort zone will give your brain a surge of mood-lifting reward when you achieve it.
Adopt a power pose
Stand or sit like a boss: head up, shoulders straight, occupying space. This boosts confidence-building hormones, and can help switch your brain into a courageous mode.
Lightly clench your right hand
Try for 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off, repeat for a couple of minutes. This lifts mood and boosts confidence by changing the balance in the front part of your brain.
A wandering mind tends to be an unhappy mind. If you learn to control your attention and focus, it can improve your mood and reduce stress. Mindfulness is excellent for improving attention.
Change your brain chemistry with your breathing. Take a long slow breath in for a count of five, then slowly out for a count of six. This has a pleasant, tranquilising effect and helps you feel calmer.
The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger And Sharper by Ian Robertson (£16.99, Bloomsbury). Available now.