Voluntary stress

When does stress help you and when does it hurt you? There is no doubt that stresses of the wrong sort can lead to anxiety, emotional turmoil — and eventually depression and diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer.  Yet a central theme of this blog is that certain stresses are “hormetic”: at the right dose and frequency, stress can actually make you stronger and more resilient.  The many posts on this blog illustrate how stress can be channelled to build muscle, retrain appetite, improve eyesight, strengthen immunity, defeat allergies, and tame addictions and anger.  Judicious exposure to stress can even promote joy and excellent health.

But one can come away from the study of hormesis with the misleading impression that it’s all about adjusting the level and timing of stressors to induce an appropriate adaptive or defensive response.  In this article, I would like to focus on a frequently overlooked ingredient in hormesis:  the role of intention, attitude and voluntary choice.  If you omit this ingredient, you are leaving out an important element of the way that stress helps you become stronger.

Voluntary, deliberate exposure to stress can be particularly effective in providing psychological benefits, including overcoming anxieties, obsessions and phobias, and vanquishing appetite cravings, addictions. Beyond overcoming such self-defeating tendencies, deliberate exposure works to unleash confidence and generate a sense of joy and accomplishment.

Hans Selye

General Adaptation Syndrome. Our modern understanding of stress can be traced in large part to Hans Selye, the Hungarian-born endocrinologist whose detailed studies of animals and humans under stress led to a model of stress as a generalizable force capable of causing disease.  Selye distinguished between good  stress, which he called “eustress”, and bad stress, which he called “distress”.  While acknowledging that some stress is good because it is energizing and activates our defenses, Selye spent most of his career studying the negative effects of exposure to stress, which he fit into a pattern called GAS or General Adaptation Syndrome.  Selye claimed that GAS proceeds through three stages:

  • Stage 1: Alarm reaction is what is often called “flight or fight” syndrome — a quickening of the heartbeat, tensing of the muscles, release of adrenaline and a cascade of other neurochemicals.  This is typically a short term galvanizing response, reversible once the source of stress is removed.
  • Stage 2: Resistance or adaptation occurs when the stressor is sustained.  Glucocorticoid hormones and catecholamines are ramped up to maintain alertness and provide a continued supply of blood glucose, and blood pressure increases to sustain tonicity of the muscles and other organs.  Positive coping and adaptation during this stage can increase resistance and immunity, although not indefinitely. With time, and if continued unimpeded without periods or rest and relaxation, this stage leads to mental fatigue, overtaxing of the adrenal glands and immune system, and vulnerability to disease
  • Stage 3: Exhaustion, in which the organism becomes depleted of energy energy reserves and immunity. Mentally, it leads to emotional withdrawal and depression.  If sustained, this third stage leads to grave illness and eventual death.

While Selye did acknowledge some positive aspects of stress during Stage 1 and the Stage 2, he did not leave much room in his model to account for the beneficial biological aspects of stress. Looked at this way, only relatively mild and short-term stresses can be considered useful and positive, insofar as they activate readiness and resistance.  But even here, Selye held that repetition of Stage 1 and Stage 2 stresses can weaken and degrade resilience.  He saw chronic, repetitive, and sustained stress as uniformly damaging to both the psyche and the body. The possibility that routine or frequent stress could significantly and sustainably build resilience was something he did not address.

Learned helplessness. Angela Patmore, in her illuminating book, The Truth About Stress, points out that Selye’s model has led to an emphasis on “stress management”, which is largely about stress prevention and strategies for coping and relaxation.  While acknowledging Selye’s contributions, Patmore believes that he overlooked a key factor which can make a very big difference in whether stress is beneficial or detrimental:

In animal experiments using inescapable threat (prolonged and repeated tail shock, forced swim, water restraint, hot plate contact and other ordeals dreamed up by researchers), long-term inability to respond to perceived danger results in a syndrome that is the biological opposite of the galvanizing stress response. In this quite different response, which has nothing at all to do with survival, the subject gives up the struggle for its life and resigns itself to its fate. This is the so-called ‘third phase’ of Selye’s GAS, but it is important to realize, as Selye evidently did not, that the animal may do this in return for a degree of neural tranquilization, and that its brain may now release pentapeptides and other opiate-like substances to dull the pain and horror of its situation. The resigned animal then succumbs to morbid physiological changes…Giving up may buffer you from reality, but at considerable cost. Resignation causes the suppression or shutting down of the immune system.  If you’ve given up, why would you need an immune system anyway? (TTAS, pp. 110-111)

The act of “giving up” or resignation literally turns a switch and redirects the entire physiology of the animal’s response into a downward spiral of depression and failing health.  This is seen not only with animals, but also in human studies.  Patmore describes experiments by Martin Seligman that demonstrate much the same phenomenon:

…Seligman and his colleagues turned their attention to students, shutting them in a room with loud unpleasant noise, and various knobs that might or might not control the volume. Some continued to alter the sound levels. Others gave up. By now Seligman had developed a model of depression based on his experimental work. His concept of learned helplessness — resigned failure to act in the face of threat — has become of fulcrum of psychological research. (TTAS, p. 113)

The concept of learned helpless highlights the importance of looking beyond the type and extent of stress alone, to consider the internal mental state of the subject.  The essential factor is the perception of control and self-determination:

A number of key studies in the stress literature have highlighted the importance of control in the vulnerability to illness from distressing experiences. Here we plainly see why this is so. Those who act to help themselves assume control. Those who fail to act requlinquish it…Viktor Frankl studied [first hand] the behavior and susceptibilities of the victims of Auschwitz and Dachau, and formulated a theory of survival that he called the ‘will to meaning’. Of immense significance was self-determination. As Frankl observes: ‘Everything can be take from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s own way.’  Taking action based on personal choice..may also send vital messages from the brain to the body to keep fighting and not fall sick. (TTAS p. 116)

Countering Selye’s GAS theory, Patmore puts forward an alternative theory of stress:

The distress-disease link that he formulated was not the direct, simple bond that he envisaged, but a complex sequence of events dependent on each individual’s psychological make-up, courage and coping skills. According to this alternative theory, disease strikes not a direct result of the response to threat, but as a result of resignation, helplessness and failure to act.  (TTAS, p. 118)

Learned control and mastery. We can take these learnings about the negative effects of learned helplessness and turn them around:  Perhaps we can enhance the effectiveness of adaptation and resistance to stress by enhancing our sense of intentionality or deliberate control when we are exposed to stress.    One way to do this is to train ourselves to become more resilient to stress by deliberately exposing ourselves.  This is well recognized in the case weight lifting or athletic training to become physically stronger and more skilled.  But I’m talking here about something more fundamental: our attitude towards facing life’s challenges and hardships.

In contrast to the modern ideology of stress management, which teaches us to avoid stress in order to stay healthy and sane, Patmore recalls that

…there was a far different school of thought, dating back to the Romans, based not on avoiding negative emotions such as fear and tension, but on rehearsing them.  Children were taught resourcefulness and mental strength by ‘character-forming pursuits’ that developed fortitude and self-mastery. By using the opposite of stress management – emotional rehearsal…our ancestors made themselves psychologically more robust….Childhood dares, games and contests, sport and adventure activities — all provide emotionally challenging experiences that help people to understand and season their own sensations and feelings, and take them through unpleasant emotions in order to achieve a resolution…

This attitude goes back at least to the Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. William Irvine, in his excellent modern reinterpretation of Stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life, notes:

Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves.

By rehearsing or training techniques such as these, you can substantially improve your resilience in handling everyday stressors, whether they be physical or social and emotional.   But what about situations in which we actually have no real control, or where the outcome is highly uncertain?  Perhaps ironically, I think that fostering a sense of control can be helpful even when we may not or do not actually have much control over the situation.  By “making the involuntary voluntary”, we can transform the way the way we respond to stress at the deepest levels of both our biology and our psyche.

I think this attitude of voluntarily embracing unavoidable stress is most articulately expressed by Epictetus, the Greek Stoic and slave whose teachings have inspired two millennia of philosophical and religious thought.  Epictetus distinguished between externals — the events and actions of others which we cannot control — and internals — our values and attitudes.  A slave for much of his life, Epictetus realized how much freedom he nevertheless retained in choosing how to react to his fate. A Stoic “sage”, he said,  never finds life intolerable, but sees in every challenge as an opportunity to test and improve oneself:

You should look to the faculties that you have, and say as you behold them, ‘Bring on me now, O Zeus, whatever difficulties you will, for I have the means and the resources granted to me by yourself to bring honour to myself through whatever may come to pass.’ (TD, Book One, Ch. 6, p. 18).

Furthermore, it is by how we handle the challenges in life that our character is revealed and built:

Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling-master, has matched you with a rough young man.  (TD, Book One, Ch. 24, p. 53).

By deciding to accept the hardships that come your way, as if you had deliberately chosen them, your reactions are transformed.  What may otherwise have been a stress that leads to resignation, giving up, and Selye’s third phase of exhaustion, now becomes a challenge deliberately embraced.  This does not mean deceiving oneself and pretending that you can control the uncontrollable.  Rather, it means embracing the challenge as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to handle a physically or emotionally difficult situation with courage and grace, to grow from it, and to actually become stronger, not weaker.  Whether or not the stressor eventually diminishes or resolves, with or without your intervention, you are left more resilient as a result.

For a more detailed discussion of Stoicism and its similarity to Hormetism, the philosophy advocated in this blog, I would encourage you to read my page on Stoicism.

Real world applications.   Many of you who have read this far may be wondering: “Interesting philosophy, but how do I actually apply this to my life?”.   I’d like to answer that by illustrating with three very different examples.  Cold showers, intermittent fasting, and exposure therapy for anxiety and phobias.

Cold showers.  The single most popular page on this blog is the March 2010 article on Cold Showers. Initially, it surprised me that so many people would show an interest in something that is without any question uncomfortable. And for some people: terrifying. The article recites a number of health benefits that have been shown or claimed to result from taking cold showers or baths.  

But the article goes beyond the objective physical health benefits to describe my subjective experience of taking cold showers.  In particular, I noted that cold showers are initially quite uncomfortable, provoking an involuntary reactions like rapid breathing, a pumping heart and even laughing. While the shock and discomfort becomes less the more cold showers you take, my experience is that–unless the weather outside is hot–there is almost always hesitation and discomfort when first stepping into the cold shower. It takes an act of will to force myself to do this.  But I do it willingly because I’ve come to understand the benefits that result.  Beyond that initial hesitation upon jumping into the cold shower each morning, I embrace it and enjoy it.

The intentional, voluntary attitude makes a big difference to the experience.  Consider the case of those who must take cold showers unwillingly, perhaps because they have no hot water for a period of their lives, or perhaps were forced to take cold showers at camp or school dormitories.  I get comments from such people, and their attitude towards cold showers is typically very negative.  It is likely that they did not receive much physical or psychological benefit from taking cold showers.  Perhaps the experience even had an adverse effect on them, at least psychologically.

Intermittent fasting.  Going without food some days, or eating only one meal per day is the involuntary fate of millions of people living in poverty or near-poverty.  It can also happen to you if you become lost, stranded or trapped in a place without ready access to food.  This experience of hunger can be quite uncomfortable, even painful.

It’s entirely different matter, however, to abstain from eating periodically for 12-24 hours as a deliberate, voluntary practice.  I’m not talking about eating disorders hear, but rather the practice of intermittent fasting (IF), undertaken to achieve not merely for healthful weight management, but for the well-documented health and longevity benefits, which I’ve discussed in my video article, Intermittent fasting for health and longevity.   When you engage in IF voluntarily, you’ll surely experience moments and periods of hunger cravings.  But in just knowing that hunger cravings are expected and are possible to
“ride out” without adverse effects, you gain a sense of control over your urges. You soon come to recognize the difference between a conditioned craving that can be extinguished by training, and true biological hunger that deserves attention.  The sense of achievement in mastering your appetite, rather than being its slave, can be empowering.  

I’ve found that intermittent fasting works best for me when I am the one who controls the eating schedule. Rather than follow someone  else’s rigidly prescribed diet or eating schedule, I like the flexibility that IF affords.  I can choose which days to fast and which meals to skip, adapting the schedule to the demands of my week.  But once I make a decision, for example to skip breakfast and lunch tomorrow, I am very disciplined about sticking to my plan.  Here again, I believe that feeling “in control” plays an important role in the outcome. A prisoner forced to follow a fasting regimen against his would be much less likely to reap the benefits — unless perhaps he decided to “own” the imposed diet in the manner of Epictetus.

Exposure therapy for anxiety, obsessions, and phobias.  One of the most common and successful approaches to treating anxiety, fear and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is the use of exposure therapy.   Often this involves both a cognitive and a behavioral component, in which a therapist works with the patient to identify beliefs, emotions and responses relating to stimuli that provoke anxiety, fear, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) emphasizes the cognitive component and proceeds by demonstrating that the underlying beliefs are false or irrational.

My personal view is that the changing the behavioral component by controlled exposure to the problematic stimulus is the most important aspect of exposure therapy, and may be sufficient even without examining your beliefs. The essential element of treatment is progressive exposure to stronger stimuli until habituation or extinction occurs.  The theory of Pavlovian extinction and deconditioning is discussed in more detail on the Psychology page of this blog.

So if you have a fear of height, snakes, or social situations, you should progressively–and very gradually–expose yourself to tougher situations.  To counteract acrophobia, you could start by ascending very small elevations.  Walk to a height that just begins to make you anxious and hold there for a while, but retreat before it becomes too uncomfortable. If you fear snakes, start by looking at photographs of snakes, then handle fake rubber snakes, or observe real snakes cages at zoos.  Eventually, work on handling real, but harmless snakes for increasing amounts of time  For social situations, start with small groups of friends, and build from there.  A related version of this exposure therapy, called exposure and response prevention, has been found useful in treating OCD.  The key is to recognize the obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors as “escape responses” or “safety behaviors” in response to stressful stimuli, while learning to prevent the escape response to progressively stronger stimuli.

It is especially important with exposure therapies that you stay in control of the situation at all times.  There must always be an “exit hatch” that allows you to back down and escape or stop the stressful stimulus before real panic sets in.  Being forced by a therapist or third party to go beyond the edge of your comfort zone can be extremely counterproductive and anxiety-inducing.  The therapist, if any, should be at best a “guide” or coach.  If you are strongly motivated to succeed, exposure therapy may be quite effective if you do it yourself, without a therapist.

Psychology and hormesis. What all the above practices and treatments have in common is an important psychological dimension. In each situation, the extent to which the exposure process is voluntary is the key to successful hormesis.  When stress exposure is voluntary, the gains in resilience can be substantial, even when the stress faced is sustained or repeated over the long term.  Contrary to Selye, chronic and repeated exposure to stress does not invariably lead to impaired health and depression.  What is perceived as stress can be turned into an energizing stimulus, when it is approached with a willing and inviting attitude.  Just as you can decide to “give up” in the face of stress, you can make the opposite choice: to persevere and embrace mastering what challenges you.

Voluntariness is not an essential component of all types of hormesis.  For example, it is likely that low level exposures to radiation, chemical toxins and allergens build biological resilience by activating DNA and mitochondrial repair mechanisms, endogenous antioxidant enzymes, and immune responses that involve no psychological or neurological mediation.  But a surprisingly large realm of human biology, including digestive, metabolic, immune processes — has a significant psychological or neurological dimension.  An entire field — psychoneuroimmunology — has been laboring to elucidate the mechanisms of such neurologically-mediated processes.  Human intentionality — or what is sometimes called “will”– must be considered a key factor in the successful application of hormesis to improve your health.

At points, paradoxically in spite of his focus on the detrimental aspects of stress, Selye himself came close to appreciating the importance of  this.  I was particularly struck by one statement attributed to Han Selye, that succinctly crystallizes the essential insight of this entire article:

“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”


  1. chuck

    Have you ever taken a cold bath? it is a much more intense experience than a shower.

    • Todd

      Yes, and like some of my readers, I occasionally treat myself to a swim in the ocean, even in winter. It can be quite bracing and even numbs the extremities at first. But invigorating!

  2. Shadowfoot

    Brilliant, Todd! This makes a ton of sense and has really served to illuminate my own reactions to stress. Once I gather the rest of my thoughts on this, I’ll continue the discussion on the forums.

  3. jim

    Thanks for your efforts here and on youTube.
    I’m wondering what you would make of a thread on paleohacks at http://paleohacks.com/questions/73626/can-intermittent-fasting-cause-or-worsen-adrenal-fatigue#axzz1cCXajsZc.
    The subject – “Can intermittent fasting cause or worsen adrenal fatigue?”

    I’ve been IF’ing MTWFS – skipping breakfast. My window on those days is noon to 7PM. I’ve been enjoying the results. I think I’m more focused and have stronger mental capacity as a result but, of course, I could be deluding myself. I’m not interested in performing n=1 testing, ala Seth Roberts, to nail it down. But it hadn’t occurred to me that my adrenals may be getting fatigued with what I’d thought to be relatively benign IF’ing.

    What say you?


    • Todd


      I took a look at the thread you linked from Paleohacks. I’ve heard similar concerns raised by others like Jack Kruse or Paul Jaminet. However, I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever that IF, by which I mean fasting of 12-20 hours per day, at least once a week, causes “adrenal fatigue”. The term “adrenal fatigue” itself is a much overused term, without clear diagnostic criteria. In fact, it is much more likely that overeating, not eating sparingly , taxes the adrenal glands. Let’s see the evidence, not just hand-waving arguments.

      Here is what the Paleohacks thread you cited argues:

      From what I understand, the mechanism (or at least one mechanism) of how intermittent fasting contributes to adrenal fatigue is the following: lack of protein or carbs during the time of the intermittent fast signals the liver to produce glucose via gluconeogenesis, and this requires cortisol and the catecholamines. These adrenal hormones become depleted eventually if one intermittent fasts often enough chronically, in combination with genetically weak adrenals and/or excess stress of any type (psychological/dietary/chemical/environmental).

      Yet, that is not an accurate account of the physiology of gluconeogensis. The normal response to fasting is for blood glucose to begin dropping. When this happens it is glucagon, not the stress hormones like cortisol or catecholamines, that first kicks in, resulting in gluconeogensis to stabilize blood glucose. Glucagon is the main counter regulatory hormone to insulin. (This has been proven by experiments using the glucagon inhibitor somatostatin). As long as one is in good health, there should be no marked rise in the stress hormones, certainly not to the level of “fatigue”. Blood glucose is in fact regulated in a tighter range during extended fasting than in the modern way of frequent eating of meals.

      The pattern of three regular meals, plus snacks, is a relativey recent innovation among humans, not to mention the animal kingdom. If our physiology were really so fragile as to become “fatigued” by only eating once or twice a day, it is really quite remarkable that our species would have been able to survive and thrive as well as it has.

      I would like to see any studies showing evidence of adrenal fatigue due to intermittent fasting, or even extended fasting. Where are the epidemics of burnt-out adrenals among the third world and non-Western populations that eat less than 3 square meals a day?


      • jim

        Todd, thanks.
        Your response makes a lot of sense. Hard to imagine our forebearers not missing lots of meals. And the idea of spending less energy digesting food so that one might have more energy for other endeavors, like problem solving, appeals to me. Fasting, like anything, can be overdone. But fasting of 12-20 hours per day, at least once a week, doesn’t qualify as overdone.

        My 2 cents: there is an optimal point on the eating continuum for each of us. And that point is well shy of “three squares” a day, everyday for many of us.

        I should start paying the extra for cortisol tests and track that. If I’m spiking, and I don’t think I am because my sleep has actually improved, I’ll back off IF. But so far, so good.


  4. Andy Baxter

    I have a question about anxiety and adrenaline.
    I have had chronic low level anxiety for some years now and after reading about hormesis I was wondering why, since I feel a sense of anxiety most of the time, and this is probably caused by the inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response ie the production of adrenaline, my after such a long period of time my adrenaline receptors have not become desensitized.
    I appreciate this is a very basic and simplistic question but I am not a doctor, biologist or anatomist.
    If this question has been answered elsewher in this blog (I haven’t been able to read everything yet) please can you point me in the right direction. Thanks, Andy

    • gill

      I’m also intrigued by the connection (or seeming lack of one) between hormesis and panic attacks/anxiety. One would expect the condition to be self-correcting…

  5. Anthony

    I have always sought to “relax”, “unwind”, and protect “personal time” as a way of managing stress. However, I always felt as though this approach actually delivered the opposite effect – lethargy, mild depression, and fatigue.

    I recently completed a personal experiment: for three weeks I stayed as busy as possible, working my regular full-time job (shift work), adding 34 hours of overtime, completing two Crossfit workouts, minimal sleep, minimal food, and no “down time”. I also completed a small home renovation project.

    Of course my results are subjective, but I felt as if the more work I did, the more energized I became. It was a paradox – less sleep, less rest, less food, more work, more stress, and yet I literally was buzzing with energy. I followed this with one week of solid rest and relaxation – and I suffered a three-day bout of hayfever and overall felt tired and lethargic.


    • Todd


      Your experience mirrors mine. A modest amount of periodic relaxation is fine, but anything more than that is counterproductive. Our immune system — in fact our entire organism — is fortified and energized by challenge. I rarely get sick and have not had a cold for many years. The last time it happens was when I relaxed after a week of very hard work. That’s no surprise, because relaxation removes the protective effects of adrenaline and cortisol — two hormones which are often villanized, but which are absolutely important to our energy and resilience.

      Of course, you can overdo it with stress. But much illness and weakness results from insufficient challenge.


  6. Andy Baxter

    The reason I posted my previous question is that after reading your blog and a book called Flinch by Julien Smith I decided to challenge my anxieties in a hormetic manner. I did this by volunteering for extra roles at work which involve presenting at meetings, I joined Toastmasters and am on my third speech, I even volunteered to help out at my sons youth group.
    I have done all these things for over a year now and my anxiety does not appear to have significantly diminished, surely this amount of stress applied at intervals (about once or twice a week) should have had some impact by now.

    • Todd

      Hi Andy,

      I’m sorry to hear that your efforts to confront anxiety head-on have not improved things. But I do admire you for trying to improve your situation.

      In my earlier response to Gill (and you), I suggested an approach called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know one person who used this approach — under the guidance of a skilled therapist — to cure her agoraphobia, a panic disorder associated with being in or away from certain places. What worked very well was GRADUAL increases in exposure, gradually increasing the distance she could travel from home.

      Is it possible that your roles at Toastmasters or your sons youth group are too uncomfortable — too big a single step? Or (less likely), too small a step and too comfortable? In most of the cases I’ve seen so far where hormesis “failed” to work, the problem was that the stress was either too great or too small. The classic example of course is weight lifting (where too light a weight results in no muscle growth, and too great a weight is simply unliftable. I’ve found with my running that I only started improving when I realized the importance of pushing myself hard enough — but not so hard that it backfires. And I’ve found the same with my rock climbing ability (which is also about overcoming fears). A more surprising example is plus lens therapy to reverse myopia, which is completely ineffective unless you take care to stimulate defocus right at the edge of blur.

      So my suggestion is to think about whether your speechmaking efforts are either too small or too intimidating. My second suggestion is to work with a therapist trained in anxiety and panic disorders, who can skillfully guide you to push through your limits.

      Feel free, of course, to let me know if I’m totally off base here. I certainly don’t know the details of your predicament well enough to give you advice that necessarily fits your situation.



      P.S. Regarding Julien Smith, you might enjoy this 3-part interview he did with me over a year ago:

      • Andy Baxter

        Hi Todd,
        Thanks for the quick reply.
        I think you’re right, I need the help of a trained therapist with this. I don’t think the level of stress I’m exposing myself to is too high but maybe my approach isn’t quite right for me, I think I need someone to look at it from the outside.
        Thanks for the help and the video.

        • Todd


          I’m glad to hear you come to this realization. A good therapist is worth his or her weight in gold. Don’t cheat yourself. Research this intensively and find the best possible therapist. Interview several before making a decision. The difference between a good therapist and a poor one is night and day. Find one who clicks with you and who has a lot of experience in treaty anxiety disorders. My friend had such a therapist and recovered 100%. It is an investment you will never regret.

          Once you overcome your anxiety, you will feel a sense of liberation that is beyond description.

          Good luck,


  7. Billy

    Andy Baxter, someone can go to school for 1 decade and still feel very stressed during all the period. Someone can take very cold showers for many consecutive years and feel very bad every single time and not feel any pleasure after taking it at all. A social phobic can attend parties for 60 years straight and feel always bad before AND after the event. Why doesn’t hormetism always work? Because there is a huge psychological component as well. This is not related to the stress being “too great or too small”, but rather about how much do you want to conquer your fears. You need to have the correct frame of mind.

    The best example I can think of is related to trying to date a girl from our school when we were children. You can study at the same classroom as her and hide yourself on the corner with your heart racing and trying to avoid her the best you can. After 1 year doing the same thing every single day you will probably feel depressed (stage 3) and will try to refrain from doing it.
    I believe this is what happened to Andy during the speeches. His frame of mind was simply not adequate. Sure, he was doing the speeches, but trying to avoid the situation at the same time. It’s like taking a cold shower, but at the same time wanting very badly to finish it.

    Try to change your frame of mind from “I will do 10 speeches and my fears will be conquered” to “I don’t care how long it will take, but I will conquer this fear no matter what.”

    If you really desires to change yourself, you will do it.

    This “voluntary stress” article is perfect and I can say that it’s 100% accurate. Specially this part:

    “The intentional, voluntary attitude makes a big difference to the experience. Consider the case of those who must take cold showers unwillingly, perhaps because they have no hot water for a period of their lives, or perhaps were forced to take cold showers at camp or school dormitories. I get comments from such people, and their attitude towards cold showers is typically very negative. It is likely that they did not receive much physical or psychological benefit from taking cold showers. Perhaps the experience even had an adverse effect on them, at least psychologically.”

    That people above don’t want to enjoy cold showers and they NEVER WILL! They can take cold showers for 100 years and they will still hate it. They will never change until they their frame of mind changes and they UNDERSTAND that cold showers can be very positive. Otherwise, it’s flogging a dead horse. Your frame of mind is 99%. The repetition is 1%.

  8. king of the monkey bars

    Billy touches on something I was wondering about. Let’s say I took cold showers for 5 years and loved them. Would not my becoming accustomed to the initial discomfort, in fact actually transforming the act into something I considered pleasurable, lessen the shock to my system that in itself triggered the beneficial response? To continue receiving physiological and psychological benefits, wouldn’t I have to either take longer or colder showers? I think of this in relation to weight training, wherein one continuously increases the weight to maintain the effect. Would this be the same case with IF as your body became accustomed to less food?

    • Todd


      Your question is a good one. I have a few thoughts in response:

      1. Even if it becomes psychologically easier, adaptation to a “fitter state” is still beneficial. If your tolerance for cold, exercise or the fasted state increases, that’s a good thing. That’s a real, permanent improvement in your bodily health and mental health. And if it’s easy on you, that’s less stress on the body and mind. The benefits of this adaptation are real and continue on, even after we have adapted. So we should be happy about that.

      2. The second-order pleasure induced by an opponent process is much more healthful and self limiting than first-order addictive pleasures. I’ve covered that to some extent in my post on the opponent process theory of emotion. A second order pleasure doesn’t have the “pull” of an addiction, because you still have to brace yourself to overcome the natural hesitancy of exposure to something uncomfortable. And it tends to be self limiting — there is always a degree or duration of exposure beyond which it is just plain too uncomfortable.

      3. If you nevertheless find that you have adapted easily and seek more benefit, there is nothing stopping you from increasing the extent or duration of exposure, so long as it is not objectively harmful. You can take longer or colder showers. You can swim in the ocean. You can take ice baths, like Wim Hof. (See my post on The Iceman). Just be careful not to get frostbite.

      Hope that helps.



    Your voluntary stress article rings true. Your last quote from Selye, “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one”, pretty much describes the whole concept. Long ago, when going through very physically and psychologically stressful Army training, we were told to shout “FEELS GOOD!” repeatedly as we engaged in whatever maneuver was ordered. To my surprise, maybe because of my oxygen-starved brain, it did start to feel good. To this day when I am running hills and feeling exhausted, thinking to myself that it “feels good” still works.

    As to involuntary stresses put on many people, I remember when I was a kid I’d become acquainted with some hard-bitten, stolid individual who’d survived the Great Depression and all of it’s unimaginable stresses, and I detected an inner strength that those hard times had created. Although I’m sure they would have liked to have had an easier time of it, they had developed a never give up attitude that I much admired. We always think of those people in times past as being tougher. I guess I believe that the concept of hormesis has always been an integral part of human development whether voluntary or involuntary.

    Paraphrasing Don Juan, “The average man sees life’s events as either a blessing or a curse, while the warrior sees only a challenge”.


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