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Can Stress Be Good For You? (Seriously.)

December 21, 2016, 5:47 PM UTC

“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.

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.

Sy has more below.

Clifton Leaf


The Army has shelved its "brain gauge" program for traumatic head injuries. NPR is out with an extraordinary report about the Pentagon abandoning an experimental program that recorded the impact of wartime blasts and explosions through the use of sensor devices placed around the head and upper body. The project was meant to assess the impact of explosions and increased pressure around soldiers' heads, and the ensuing effects on their brains (such as concussions and eventual links to neurodegenerative diseases). But it appears that the project may have been scrapped because the sensors were picking up the effects of the continual use of weapons that soldiers are actually supposed to activate, such as recoilless rifles. "The majority of exposures were not from improvised explosive devices, as you might expect," David Borkholder, the founder of BlackBox Biometrics, which makes the blast gauges, told NPR. The Army's decision certainly does raise questions about what may be leading to brain disorders in the service members who see warfare. (NPR)

Merck KGaA wants to empower patients with a digital story-sharing platform. Merck (the German one) has launched a new "My Story" feature to allow multiple sclerosis patients and caregivers to share their stories through customized PDFs. The documents will contains pictures and narratives in order to help empower the people who are affected by MS. And for good reason—a digital support network can be imperative for those facing a chronic condition, particularly one that can affect as many people beyond just the patient as MS can. (FiercePharma)


How Sanofi plans to bag the elusive biotech Actelion. Sanofi is reportedly using its favored carrot to woo Actelion, Europe's biggest biotech and the company which most recently spurned Johnson & Johnson. The French pharma giant is offering up contingent value right (CVR) of $20 (out of the $275 per share that Sanofi is apparently offering to Actelion) in order to sweeten the pot, according to Bloomberg. Sanofi has used this tool before, notably for its acquisition of Genzyme. CVRs allow a purchasing company to set a price that will be inflated if certain experimental therapies being developed by the acquisition target are approved and meet certain sales milestones. The question is whether the sweetener will be enough for Actelion chief Jean-Paul Clozel, who is notorious for his desire for the company's independence. (Bloomberg)


The food industry is fighting sugar guidelines with sponsored studies. A new study pushing back on sugar-cutting guidelines is drawing a fair amount of controversy. The reason? It was funded by major food companies like Coca-Cola, Hershey's, and Kraft Foods—organizations that aren't exactly known for their sugar-free products. Nutritional and public health advocates have been slamming the review, even comparing it to the tactics used by Big Tobacco. "This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science," said Marion Nestle, an NYU professor and nutrition expert, in an interview with the New York Times. "This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful." (Fortune)


How GSK's Experimental HIV Drug Could Be a Safer Bet—And a Headache for Gileadby Sy Mukherjee

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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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