Can Stress Be Good For You? (Seriously.)

December 21, 2016, 5:56 PM UTC

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

“Why do engineers build bends in roads?” That’s the question with which clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Ian Robertson begins his new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, due for release in January. The answer, explains Robertson, is that a road without bends—an endlessly, monotonously straight highway—lulls our brains into a state of “autopilot.” And in energy-saver, half-alert state, it’s surprisingly easy to make a dumb mistake—or fail to react quickly to a change in circumstances. When driving a two-ton vehicle 60 miles an hour, such flashes of mental failure can be deadly, of course.

Luckily for us, though, the road of life has no shortage of bends, says Robertson, the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, at Dallas. Sure, those bends, quite often, manifest as stress, often bringing profound anxiety when we’re not prepared for them. But here’s the rub: That stress, says Robertson, can actually help us perform better if we know how to harness it.

Consider the prospect of taking a surprise math quiz. “If you worry about and doubt your ability” to perform well on the test, stress weakens your performance, Robertson says. “But if you don’t worry about your ability, stress can boost your performance—and in this case the more of it the better.” A sudden boost of cortisol that flummoxes the math-anxious has the opposite effect on the non-anxious, research shows: It pushes the person into the “performance sweet spot.”

The good news is we can actually train ourselves to turn our quotidian panic into the kind of rush that great sluggers feel when they get that “hero moment” at the plate. For them, that 0-2, two-out, tie-game fastball looks as fat and slow as a volleyball.

The actual how-to aspects of this transformation are snuck in here and there in Robertson’s book, which is largely a review of the author’s own discovery of this revelation through the course of his work and life experience. But that history, and the fascinating case studies he discusses, are worth reading.

If nothing else, in this week of pre-holiday deadlines, last-minute-shopping anxiety, travel and traffic, it’s good to be reminded that whatever doesn’t kill us… can make us stronger.

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