Antifragility

What if we accepted that new challenges will inevitably come in some form or other, and that our exposure to them will in fact make us stronger and more capable. PreKure’s Neuroscientist and  Clinical Psychologist, Dr Desiree Dickerson, takes us on a journey through antifragility and hormesis to a stronger, more capable you.

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What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

By Dr Desiree Dickerson

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There simply isn’t a right or a perfect way to cope. Dr. George Bonanno, a researcher in the resiliency field, says that how we cope or how we deal with a situation depends completely on the situation and on our degree of flexibility to that situation. He claims that there are three components to flexibility:

  1. How we read the situation
  2. Our repertoire of behaviors – the skills set, our coping strategies that we bring to that situation
  3. The ability to regroup using corrective feedback – our ability to integrate what we’ve learned from that experience into our lives.

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A gentleman by the name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues if we are resilient and we face a significant uncertainty or challenge, then our goal is simply to maintain or to recover to a functional level of wellbeing. Taleb argues that “resilience resists shocks but stays the same”.

Taleb proposes that these blows could actually make us better. “What if we could create objects, systems, our body, us as individuals, corporations, political institutions that gained from shocks? That thrived and grew when exposed to volatility. That loved randomness, disorder, stresses, adventures, risks, uncertainty”. Taleb calls this quality being antifragile.

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“Antifragility doesn’t require that you know what the stressor is going to be in advance, since we expect to be better, to be strengthened by it.” Taleb

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Taleb argues that you wouldn’t have to predict what the stressor is going to be in advance in order to prepare for it, and you’re likely to benefit from experiencing it and therefore you don’t have to be afraid of it.

Taleb argues that antifragility has this singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them and to do them well. So where do we see this antifragility in our daily lives? Does it even exist? Well, it turns out that in our biological systems, this antifragility principle is really beautifully captured in hormesis. Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect, say improved health, stress tolerance, growth, or even longevity results from exposure to a low dose of a substance of a toxin that at high doses would be toxic or lethal. So, the idea is that there’s a biphasic response at the low dose and high dose. They produce opposing effects, low dose – beneficial, high dose – toxic.

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In a nutshell, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

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Okay. So what are some examples of hormesis?

  • Well, exercise provides a really nice one. When we exercise, when we lift weight or do strenuous activity our muscle fibers actually break down in order to become bigger and stronger. We start with a smaller dose, a lower weight, and we build up until our body can handle significantly more weight.

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  • Vegetables is another interesting one. It’s argued that the benefits of vegetables come not from the vitamins, but in fact from phytochemical that the plants produce in order to protect themselves from insects. Phytochemicals are a toxic substance and insecticide that’s designed to target the nervous system of insects. At the low dose that we consume it in our vegetables, it actually has a stimulating and beneficial effect.

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  • Then there’s fasting, which makes evolutionary sense, right? At times of food scarcity, our body needed to be running at peak performance. We needed to save energy and we needed to increase our chances of getting out and finding food. So evidence suggest that fasting actually helps us to live longer. It makes ourselves more resilient to oxidative damage, it protects our brain cells, improves cognitive functioning and burns fat.

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  • Vaccinations are rather the perfect definition of of hormesis. You’re exposing yourself to a low level of a pathogen which in turn strengthens our immune system so that we can fight exposure to greater doses later.

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  • Sun exposure is another one. At high doses it causes bad problems for us and we’ve learned to really fear the sun. Sunburn, cancer, ageing. But the right dose is super-healthy. The appropriate dose of sunlight helps our cells to produce more vitamin D, which affects more than a thousand reactions throughout our body.

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  • And one other example is extreme temperatures. Intense hot and extreme cold actually increases the oxidative stress levels in our body and can trigger the production of what are called shock proteins. For example saunas or intense exercise place our body in an extreme heat environment. And that can make our cells produce antioxidants system-wide and can protect our body from inflammation and damage, as well as increase our immunity.

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What if we accepted that new challenges will inevitably come in some form or other, and that our exposure to them will in fact make us stronger and more capable.”

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So, what if we were to embrace this concept of antifragility? This concept of hormesis and the idea that facing certain hardships, challenges or difficulties actually help strengthen our ability to face future stresses, much like a vaccine does our immune system. What if looking forward, we began to see that uncertainty is really the only given in our lives. What if we learned to embrace it rather than trying to predict and fear the next storm coming. What if we accepted that new challenges will inevitably come in some form or other, and that our exposure to them will in fact make us stronger and more capable. What a different lens to view the world through. What a different filter to apply to stressful situations. How will I grow from this?


If you would like to learn more about antifragility from Dr Desiree Dickerson, take a look at our online course Mind-Body Medicine.