Anyone that reads this website knows that I don’t do interviews.
I like to keep this blog my own and, for the most part, I’m very selective about who I’ll give a forum to in this place. When I first was introduced to Getting Stronger, a great blog about hormesis, I knew an interview was the right thing to do.
Todd Becker is the author of Getting Stronger, a blog about stress and adaptation for the purpose of thriving in the modern environment. This is Part 1– the rest will follow up later, or you can read more now here.
Julien: What is Hormetism? Why is it important?
Todd Becker: Hormetism is both a philosophy of life and a set of specific self-improvement techniques, based upon the practical application of hormesis. Hormesis is a biological principle which is surprising or counterintuitive to most people when they first encounter it: a small dose of something harmful or stressful is frequently good for you. There is a lot of research showing that health and lifespan can be improved by exposure to a wide variety of stressors, including toxic chemicals and radiation, exercise and calorie restriction. Of course, there is always a balance, and too much stress or toxicity can harm you. However, I think most people unnecessarily fear and avoid stress, and as a result they miss out on the benefits. It is very important to understand how to gradually adjust the dose and frequency of the stress to get the maximum benefits.
Hormetism goes beyond the science and asks how we can incorporate hormesis into our lives in a practical way, to increase our resilience and well-being. It is more than a set of techniques; it’s a practical philosophy. I’ve read the works of the Greek and Roman Stoics, philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and was surprised to see that they recognized not only the physical benefits of hardship and self-denial, but the psychological benefits as well. The Stoics were not a sour and humorless bunch, as you might think, but they were joyful and light-hearted because they learned to appreciate the good in life while building up a tolerance for what most people consider as misfortune, adversity or even pain. The Stoics feared very little in life.
A few years ago, I began to see how the principle of applied stress and hardship generates positive returns in so many different areas. There is a lot of good scientific research on hormesis, but it is typically very narrow and esoteric, and I was surprised that nobody was connecting the dots to develop general principles for self-improvement. My interest is in elaborating the findings of hormesis into more general guidelines, which we can apply to improve our health and our outlook in life in any field of interest. The more I read and think about it, the more connections and applications I see to every aspect of life and society. I think this is such an important finding, because all of can benefit by getting stronger physically, psychologically, and even spiritually.
So I started writing my blog, “Getting Stronger” back in March. And I’m getting a very good response, my readership is growing every day. I’ve even started a forum where discussions take place on various topics. I think I’ve tapped into an important niche that nobody else seems to be addressing. This is exciting to me and I want to see how far the idea of Hormetism can go.
J: I bet the main question you get from people is “Why would anyone do this to themselves?” So, why would they?
TB: You’re right, there’s often a certain puzzlement as to why anyone would subject themselves to cold showers, skipping meals, running barefoot, or lifting heavy weights slowly. All of these things are uncomfortable, at least at first. One of my readers tried taking a cold shower and commented that it was ‘the most intensely uncomfortable non-dangerous thing’ he’d ever tried. So I can understand the reluctance. But I’m not recommending masochism or self-harm. The practices I’m advocating trade short term pain for long term gain. Everything I write about is something I’ve tried myself, after I’ve researched it to understand the scientific basis and evidence for the benefits. In each case, there are long term objective benefits, which become increasingly apparent with time. And what is remarkable is that the initial short term discomforts generally also diminish in short order.
Two good examples of that are cold showers and barefoot running. When you take your first cold shower, you’ll probably experience “cold shock” — involuntary gasping, a pounding heart rate, and very cold extremities. But after several cold showers, this reaction gets much shorter and milder, and you’ll soon feel a kind of radiance and vitality that lasts all morning. Cold showers are a great anti-depressant! Barefoot running can also be a bit awkward and uncomfortable at first. You get calluses and sore muscles you didn’t known you had. But after a few sessions, you realize how fun it is, and people find themselves stronger and less prone to injury.
I’ve also written about the psychological benefits of refraining from pleasurable things and learning to tolerate uncomfortable things. The Stoics were the first to recognize these benefits. And recent psychologists, like Richard Solomon, noticed that strenuous or unpleasant activities often bring with them a pleasurable aftermath which grows stronger, and lasts longer, the more it is repeated. He first found this when studying the euphoria that skydivers experience after their first terrifying jump. Each time they jump, it becomes less and less terrifying–whereas the positive feelings upon landing get stronger. It’s almost the inverse of addictive pleasures, where the pleasure decreases and lasts less time with each “hit”, leading to tolerance effects and very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
The good news is that most of the long term benefits I write about don’t take all that long to show up. So you don’t have to be some type of super-disciplined person to follow this program, you just have to have enough motivation to get started, and take it one step at a time.
J: I found out about intermittent fasting around 2007-2008 and started practicing it, with interesting results. I also recently started taking cold showers, which are known to have physiological benefits. How could someone start this process of intentional stress if they were interested?
It’s interesting that you have tried cold showers. When I first wrote about cold showers, my wife said, “Why don’t you stick to diets, there’s a big audience for that — nobody wants to take cold showers!” But of all my posts, the one on cold showers has had the most hits, even more than the diet-related posts, and its popularity has grown steadily over the 6 months since I posted it. I’m not sure why that is, but perhaps its because I focus on the subjective experience of taking cold showers and the benefits of making it a daily habit — whereas most other web articles talk only about the health benefits, or recommend a cold shower as a one-time freakish experiment.
Every practice I recommend is intended to become a permanent habit, something that you stick with for the long term. The benefits continue to grow, like compound interest. Even my recommendations regarding eating are not meant as “crash” diets, but long term changes to eating habits.
I also find that these are not separate, individual practices, but they tend to work together to improve physical and psychological resistance. For that reason, you can start almost anywhere. I’d recommend choosing a single area of your life where you’d most like to see improvement. Don’t try to change everything about yourself at once– pick one area that is important but manageable. If you are overweight or out of shape, it could be weight loss or fitness. Perhaps you want to improve your vision, overcome an addiction, or learn to manage emotions like anger or fear. I’ve written posts on each of these. In all cases, the technique involves exposing yourself to the uncomfortable aspect of change, but doing so gradually and in a systematic way. So for example, with intermittent fasting, I recommend that you take it one step at a time. Don’t start out fasting 24 hours. First try eliminating afternoon snacks. Then, when you can handle that, cut out breakfast. And so on. You have to be motivated and patient, but it helps to know that the science is on your side — that your body and mind are plastic and adaptable, and that with the right approach you can change.
When you’ve had success improving yourself in one area, the second and third areas come more easily. In the process, you are actively strengthening not just your physical being, but your patience and tolerance to undergo further challenging changes.
J: That fits right into the stuff I wanted to bring up next. It was actually on your blog that I first read about the “opponent-process theory of emotion,” which I’ve found to be an interesting way to build willpower. Can you explain how that works?
That’s a really interesting question, Julien. In the 1950s, two neurologists, Leo Hurvich and Dorothea Jameson, tried to understand why we see after-images. When we stare for a while at bright colors and then look at a white wall or paper, we’ll often see a ghostly image with the opposite, complementary color. Hurvich and Jameson traced these after-images to processes within our nervous system, in the retina and ganglion cells, that act in opposition to the initial stimulus, so when you remove the stimulus, this weaker but persistent “opponent process” is still running. And as I already mentioned, psychologists like Richard Solomon and J.D. Corbit found this to also be a good explanation for why intense thrills like skydiving give way to pleasurable relief, while intense pleasures from drugs or whatever can lead to addiction, because they leave one feeling down or depressed between highs. Solomon’s biggest insight, I think, was not just in coming up with many examples of these kinds of psychological reactions and describing them, but in actually trying to locate their underlying causes within our nervous systems.
The basic idea is that our nervous systems try to resist large changes through a mechanism called homeostasis. Whether we see a change as “good” or “bad” doesn’t matter; homeostasis acts to compensate for big changes. This applies to any physiological system in our body, not just our nervous systems. If we get hot, our circulatory system acts to cool us down. If we eat a big meal, our digestive hormones act to control blood sugar. If we get highly excited or stimulated, our neurochemistry acts to depress the stimulation. For any big change, there is a simultaneous, lower level process acting to at least partially blunt the impact of that change. Solomon found several interesting things. First, the low level opponent process continues on even after the original stimulus stops. So if we experience a stressful thrill like skydiving, the calming reaction leads to a sense of relief that can last much longer than the original thrill. For example, if we take a cold shower, the thermogenic opponent-process outlasts this and we feel a lasting pleasant warmth after stepping out of the shower. More interestingly, the opponent process gets stronger and lasts longer with each repetition; the body is adapting and realizes it must try harder to maintain homeostasis. That means that the original “shock” is muted faster and more strongly, even from the beginning. It also means that with repetition the opponent process continues to get stronger and last longer after the stimulus stops. So the more you take cold showers, the shorter the initial unpleasantness, and the longer and stronger the “afterglow”.
I think this also explains why exposing yourself to challenging or unpleasant situations is a great way to build up your tolerance, or “willpower” if you want to call it that. Some people think of willpower as a mysterious ability you are either born with or lack. But the opponent-process theory shows that anyone can strengthen their willpower by continuing to test their will. The will is like a muscle — you have to build it up by confronting progressively more difficult challenges. Cognitive behavioral therapists have found that exposure therapy — progressive exposure to fears — is very useful in overcoming phobias or anxieties. Similarly, we can gain willpower by first setting small challenges for ourselves, and increasing the challenge. We can expect a reward each time in the form of a feeling of satisfaction that comes after meeting each challenge. And the opponent process theory teaches us that we can expect this “relief” or satisfaction to continue increasing the more we test ourselves. Willpower gets easier the more you practice it. It’s just how our nervous systems work. I’m currently researching the underlying physiological mechanisms for this for an upcoming post on my blog. Its absolutely fascinating how this works.
End of Part 1! Read Part 2 here.