Experience breeds toughness. Picture your brain building its resilience with every stressful experience you encounter, being trained like the hardened body of an Olympic athlete. Instead of drowning under the pressure, your mind thrives on it. You welcome deadlines, exams, and social conflicts as challenges rather than burdens. Stress makes you strong rather than weak. You feel, in short, ready for anything.
John Coates, a Wall Street trader-turned neuroscientist, explores this idea of a “toughened person”— someone mentally and biologically braced to handle stress—in his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. Like a number of mental health researchers, Coates views mild bouts of stress as a natural and necessary mechanism to keep our bodies and brains on alert. “Resilience to stress comes from experiencing stress,” he writes.
In Coates’ understanding, a toughened person views stressful situations as a novelty, a challenge, and an opportunity for gain. On the other hand, an individual who lacks mental toughness views stress as a threat, something to run away from. Coates observed that experienced financial traders who work on stress-driven trading floors show heightened stamina under pressure. He also mentions that in 2004, scientists at Stanford University found that squirrel monkeys exposed to mild stress at an early age show the same sort of acquired resilience.
Yet stress continues to damage our lives every day: it often causes depression, exhaustion, and even failure. So what allows athletes, financial traders, and squirrel monkeys to keep pushing themselves while others give up? What do we need in our bodies, brains, and bloodstreams to become “tough”?
Coates turns to the strict exercise regime of top athletes for the answer, describing a simple yet strict plan: stress, recovery, stress, recovery. Like physical strength, building mental toughness requires a trained and careful balance of the body’s hormones.
When faced with the pressure of a deadline, first date, or exam, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus releases several hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that put your body on alert. You get sweaty palms, weak knees, and a racing mind, the signs of your body’s call to arms. The Centre for Studies on Human Stress calls it a reaction to acute stress, an “on the spot” pressure that may actually help your mind and body adapt to tense situations. Your body braces itself, pumped up on a natural high.
But like most highs, it never lasts. If we live under daily pressure, we risk remaining in a constant state of stress. Our hormones remain imbalanced. Too much cortisol may make our bodies feel too gutsy for too long, burning up all our energy and leaving us exhausted. Acute stress takes on a hellish afterlife called “chronic stress”. Under chronic or prolonged stress, we feel tense, tired, and trapped. How do we use stress to our advantage? The trick is to preserve our surges of energy, not let them burn us out.
Coates calls it “homeostasis”, a scientific term for the balance of hormones in our body. The word derives from the Greek words homeo “same” and stasis “stable”. Remaining stable. Balancing the ratio of hormones in your brain and body allows you to draw on energy-providing resources like cortisol only when necessary. Think of the meticulous workouts of athletes. Elite athletes break muscle tissue with intense training, then recover for a day or so, only to follow that rest up with more muscle exhaustion. The body builds strength. Coates believes that we can train our minds the same way: we can toughen our brains through exposure to acute bouts of stress, but must balance it out with periods of rest. Between periods of stress, exercise makes a perfect pacifier. It has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, conserving energy for when your body and brain need to jump into action.
As a student, I naturally believe that the more hours I spend in the library, the higher my rate of success. The longer I stay awake, the better. The more I think about a decision, the easier it will be. I assume that resilience comes from never letting my guard down, never stopping for a breath. But this mindset characterizes the staleness of chronic stress rather than the mental workout I need if I am to toughen up.
Instead of expending our energy on all-nighters right before a deadline, perhaps we should focus instead on routine. Stress, recovery, stress, recovery. “Once we come to understand the signals our bodies send us, including stress,” Coates writes, “there is a great deal we as individuals can do to toughen ourselves against their ravages.”
In other words: take a breath, take a break, take it on.