Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist in Dublin, Ireland, looks calm and collected in all his Youtube talks. But he’s probably a bit stressed out and that’s exactly what makes him a better, more engaging speaker. His stress is good. “My own best public lectures have only been good because I have felt anxious just beforehand,” Robertson admits.
Robertson’s book, “The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper,” explains it all. We chatted with him and we touched on everything from the stress sweet spot to dish washing as stress relief. Below is an edited transcript.
In a nutshell, how exactly does stress makes us stronger and sharper?
Moderate stress can push an under-stimulated brain into its sweet spot where the “just right” amount of neurotransmitters helps the brain perform optimally.
Moderate stress teaches you that the symptoms of stress eventually pass and working through that stress can actually give you a sense of achievement.
The entire self-care industry was created to counteract stress. Drawing, knitting, candles etc. What’s your take on that?
You can’t learn to deal with stress if you run away from it – you have to ride it as a form of energy. Trying to feel calm when you feel very anxious can be tricky. Telling yourself, on the other hand that you feel excited when you are anxious, is an easier sell for the brain. The symptoms (pumping heart, sweating skin etc) are so similar.
What are some simple things to shift our mood from stressed out to calm and collected?
Emotions are embodied in our posture, facial expressions and movements. We can trick our brain into creating the internal feelings associated with its external manifestation in our body – stand proud, smile confidently and lightly clench your right fist to switch on the brain’s approach system which is linked to left brain networks.
Some people will argue that their stressors are much higher compared to the average person.
Severe stress is not easy but the ideas I put forward can help here sometimes too. For example, setting small goals for oneself help build a sense of control and generate mood-lifting success experiences when the goal is achieved.
Robertson’s tried and true technique to ease anxiety before a performance or a meeting: Take three long slowish breaths in to the count of five and out to the count of five. Lightly clench your right hand and say to yourself “I feel excited!”
We often tend to think that those who are not stressed simply don’t care enough. Is that true?
It can be partly true – if you don’t care about the quality of your work or about how other’s feel, then you won’t be stressed by failures in these domains.
To overcome adversity, you talk about the ability to keep going on.
Small, achievable goals. Control your attention and don’t dwell on the big picture — focus on the next goal, one step at a time. Relish the human capacity for free will, to keep going.
What does doing the dishes have to do with stress management?
Focusing on a simple task of washing the dishes, if you manage to do it, harnesses your attention and takes it away from anxieties about the past and the future. That’s why the control of attention is a crucial antidote to stress.