March 11


Hormesis – The Lost Art of Success

Have you noticed that a lot of advice tends to be good for you…up to a certain point before the effects become diminishing;

  • Its good to ask questions to come across well in social interactions (but too many will feel like an interrogation)
  • Be happy by being in the moment (but too much & you’ll never get anything planned)
  • Regular exercise will keep you fit (but too much & you’ll get burn out)

Even water, of which 57% of our body is composed of, can be potentially fatal if we have too much of it (known as dilutional hyponatremia).

Challenge Makes You Stronger

When Nietzsche stated “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” and when renaissance physician Paracelsus observed that “The dose makes the poison” they were hitting upon a fundamental truth in human resilience; challenge makes you stronger!

There is no better way of challenging ourselves than in the art of hormesis.

Starting after the discovery that small doses of poison promoted the growth of yeast, hormesis is defined as “a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or poisonous when given in high doses” (Todd Becker).

It is simply the process of deliberately exposing yourself to a challenging stimuli as a way of getting physically and/or mentally stronger.

When I used to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu there was a common exercise we’d do where one participant would be blindfolded whilst the opponent would be able to see. This was quite daunting at first because you have had one of your senses eliminated whilst your opponent can freely use their sight to take advantage.

Yet, being blindfolded teaches you to feel for gaps in your opponents offensive that you can capitalise on. It teaches you how to be intuitive with your movement.

Only through deliberately initiating a challenge can you begin to learn this lesson.

The crisis of comfort

Guy smoking

Have you noticed how many sequals are happening at the moment in the cinema. Whilst I’m not going to complain that Bryan Mills is picking up his gun again for Taken 3, it does scream a fear to try something new, to stick with the tried and tested and diminish the threat of not getting a return on investment.

Yet whilst we are subject to endless superhero films & Star Wars prequels in the coming year, new ideas & stories gets lost to comfort & familiarity.

The same can happen to us humans. We like comfort, we like familiar and given half the chance we’d happily stay there. Yet there is one problem; life!

We Are Robust Yet Fragile

In his book Resilience, Andrew Zolli talked about a concept called ‘robust yet fragile’ which is where a system operates nicely within the confines of which it is used to. The problem occurs when something unexpected occurs exposing weaknesses that were there all the time.

An example commonly used for robust yet fragile is the financial crash. For years, cheap credit was given out, people were able to buy their own house and bank lent money like it was going out of fashion.

Then one ‘too big to fail’ firm had to be bailed out which immediately exposed the weaknesses of the worldwide economy.

We are at risk of being robust yet fragile if we are not adopting hormesis-like activities regularly. When everything is going well and nothing comes forward to trigger our emotional epicentres we do just fine.

We may even see ourselves as more competent than we actually are. Yet, like weight training, your show of strength & grit isn’t in the weight you’ve lifted 100’s of times but in the one you struggle to get off the floor, with a grimace on your face & a gasp of breath when its finally lifted.

Your true show of resilience is when faced with challenge & hormesis can help you prepare for that – after all the sting in the tale of real challenge is in the uncertainty of when it might rear its head.

Man being challenged.

Experiencing Hormesis

So what can you do to experience hormesis? Simply anything that provides a challenge for you but doesn’t break you. Hormesis is not meant to bring you to your knees in a emotional pile of rejection. It is meant to provide a specific beginning, middle & end where you encounter discomfort. Some examples can include:

  • A cold shower if you are used to warm. An ice bath if you are used to cold.
  • Offering to chair a team meeting if you normally sit in the background.
  • Ask someone in the street for the time & touch them on the arm if starting conversations & personal space intrusion is a foreign concept for you.
  • Weight training if you’re used to cardio, or a crossfit workout if you’re used to purely strength training.
  • Intermittent fasting if you’re used to having breakfast & snacks.
  • Notice none of these would be considered extreme. I haven’t advised you to jump into a freezing lake or find the most attractive person of the opposite sex and go seduce them. See Hormesis more as a cumulative process towards increased resilience.

When you start too incorporate hormesis into your regular routine you will find yourself overreacting less, more mentally strong and easily able to handle stressful situations in an efficient way.

So, What are you going to do hormesis in?



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  • Sounds a lot like deliberate practice for skill development. Need to spend some time pushing out your comfort zone, which uncomfortable, to be able to gain more proficiency. Only here, the proficiency you are getting is a little more courage to confront whatever challenges may arise. I would like to see this in practice by saying, I need to do at least 3 a day, set a goal.

    • You are correct Colin, it is very similar to deliberate practice; it is deliberate discomfort. We are looking to become comfortable being uncomfortable by deliberately for a short, set period of time uncomfortable.

  • Independent travel throws all kinds of surprises at you and I think it is very good way of learning that one can actually deal with quite a lot.

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