Hormesis: Why Nietzsche Was Right About What Does Not Kill Us

December 14, 2017
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In his book Twilight of the Idols or How To Philosophize With A Hammer, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says;

“From life’s school of war: What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Nearly all of us have run across some version of this pithy aphorism before. It has sunk its teeth deep into pop culture and it’s easy to understand why. We want it to be true. We want to believe that the things we endure, all the heartaches and pains and sufferings and troubles, have a purpose. That by enduring them we actually become something more than what we were. A better, stronger more resilient version of ourselves.

And you know what? Nietzsche was right. Science has once again caught up to philosophy and found evidence to support the claim made by Nietzsche. Ok. Fine. I don’t want to be disingenuous to the astute readers of my articles so I will say that science hasn’t completely validated this argument from Nietzsche. But if science were also in the game of pithy aphorisms they might say something like this; “From life’s school of war: There are things that can kill me, but in smaller doses they can make me stronger.”

The No Shit Disclaimer.

Now, before we go any further let’s quickly acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes. Some things that don’t kill you can make you weaker. Duh. I am not saying everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I can say, with the sound backing of philosophy and science riding in tandem, that some things that might kill you in large doses can make you stronger when applied in smaller doses. It is a concept called hormesis and is backed by sound science.

It should go without saying that we are not to take Nietzsche literally in his statement. He himself suffered physical and mental maladies that stole his health and his mind. His syphilitic wasting away to nothing did not make him stronger. There are countless physical and mental diseases that are not going to make you stronger and I would not trivialize the suffering and misery that some people deal with on a daily basis by suggesting otherwise. I watched my uncle suffer through one of those diseases, and I know the pain it can cause.

What Nietzsche wants – what Nietzsche always wants – is for his aphorisms, while intended to be jarring and shattering, to be more slowly digested. They are to be chewed on and savored and finally swallowed after all the flavor has been wrung out of them.

We need to understand the underlying intent tied to a statement like the one above. Especially from Nietzsche, who was the emperor of aphorisms. What he is doing here is celebrating the opportunities of conflict in our lives as moments of growth. As moments of opportunity to prove the strength of the values and ideals you claim to hold. These struggles and pains and miseries that bend you, but do not break you, are opportunities of growth.

It may sound like Pollyanna, self-help, bullshit, but it’s not. There is plenty of science to back up this claim of philosophy. We see in nature that some potentially deadly applications of external factors can actually be beneficial when applied in smaller, more controlled doses.

So, what I want to do is to explore both of theses ideas of hormesis. The philosophical and the scientific. Because – as most often is the case in the relationship between philosophy and science – each individual understanding strengthens the understanding of both. And there is tactical, practical value in each if they can be understood.

What is Hormesis?

Simply put, Hormesis is a positive response to exposure to some “toxin” that might otherwise be harmful in larger dosages. This is a term that was spawned out of toxicology in 1943 but the concept was being explored in the late 19th century by science and philosophy together, and I want to return the theory to those two birth parents in order to get more from it.

HormesisDrawingWe do not have to stretch far to bridge the gap between Nietzsche’s presentation of hormesis, as it relates to the mind, and the biological hormesis that was birthed in science. Nearly every reference that you find to it in medical literature comes with its very own reference to Nietzsche already in it. Our task then is to build upon what is already being implied.

I think the divergence of the philosophical and scientific presentations of hormesis lies in the 2 different forms that hormesis takes.

The 2 forms of Hormetic Stressors: Psychological and Biological

Psychological Stressors

Post Traumatic Growth

The philosophical presentation of hormesis lies primarily in the psychological forms of stressors. These are the mentally taxing events of life that we all face. Some events are more traumatic or potentially debilitating than others, but even in the traumatic events we can find room to grow stronger. This idea has been validated in a study done detailed in this article from the National Center for PTSD.

In this study, we find the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. Post Traumatic Growth is the idea of “how growth arises through the resolution of an adversarial tension between pre-existing assumptive worlds and the new trauma-related information”. What does this mean?

This definition is perhaps most eloquently summed up in a quote by psychologist, neurologist, and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl when he wrote,

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This means that we can find opportunities for growth if we can break down our assumptions about events that have happened to us and unravel the strain that these events can bring by integrating new information about what has happened to us.

We do this in a few different ways. One of the recommended approaches is to engage in benefit finding. Benefit finding is about breaking down our assumptions about our difficult situations. The idea is to try and find potential benefits of the situation. This is not always easy, and we should be honest with ourselves about the benefits, but if we are diligent and disciplined in investigating our situations I think we can almost always find some benefit to them.

The other activity to aid in growth from our traumas is to focus on positive changes. This means consistently and positively taking stock of your life in regular intervals after the traumatic events that happen to us and bringing to light those positive changes that you have made since those events.

Both of these activities require an honest personal inventory and retrospective reporting. This means digging deeply into difficult feelings and thoughts, but if we can manage the stress and strain of that investigation, we can grow from the traumatic events that otherwise threaten to break us for good.

Intentional Discomfort

Nietzsche may not be the first philosopher to propose the philosophical idea of hormesis. The Stoics philosophers may have advocated for the proactive application of hormetic ideas in their call for intentional discomfort. I have written about this before, and a great deal of that article is tangentially related to the ideas of hormesis, but I did not directly speak to the hormetic opportunities involved in intentional discomfort so I want to elaborate on that. (I do urge you to read the other article so you completely understand the concept of intentional hardship in Stoic philosophy)

By choosing to forgo some essential luxury or undertake some hardship for a short amount of time, to temporarily tax the complacency to which we often live our lives, we can strengthen our sense of gratitude for what we have and notice the hardship that other people face. We can respond to that suffering with compassion and be more prone to help out of a sense of understanding and empathy.

A compassionate response to difficult situations is just as important as a hard response. Strengthening does not always mean making you harder. Sometimes it means making you flexible. We are not building something impenetrable here with our lives. We do not want to keep everything out. We want to be able to handle everything that comes in. We want to build something substantial. Something that has weight and that can withstand the weathering of time and experience. And sometimes that takes the form of a stronger understanding of the struggles of others by choosing to undertake struggles of your own.

Philosophy

Yes. Philosophy itself is a hormetic stressor. Challenging the mind with new ideas, new insights, new knowledge is going to tax your mind and what’s more, it is going to tax your beliefs. That is what is strengthened, and needs to be consistently exercised, through the hormetic stress of philosophy. Your beliefs and idea about the world and your place in it.

By spending time challenging our own and others beliefs about the world, with the intent of sincerely understanding and approaching some form of truth, we rip and tear at the very fiber of our being and those rips and tears will be repaired by a deeper sense of understanding and a stronger sense of conviction and meaning for your life.

Philosophy, when done right, pushes the boundaries of our understanding, assumptions, beliefs, and ideas. It is the greatest way to work our intellectual muscles and come to a form of reasoning that is robust, meaningful, and potent. Doing philosophy, thinking deeply about life and your place in it, can be difficult because the answers we are seeking have to be unearthed through brutal self-honesty and rigid intellectual discipline but in that work of philosophizing is your chance to rebuild your belief system to something stronger and better able to withstand the malaise of meaning that can come from an unexamined life.

Biological Stressors

Exercise

This is the most obvious example of a hormetic stressor that you can find out in the wild. Good old fashioned exercise. That sweat-inducing, muscle-tearing, tendon-stretching, bone-jarring beauty of working your body. I personally love it and the biggest reason is because of the hormetic response of it all.

I know that if I work out hard and can endure the temporary pain of pushing my body through difficult athletic endeavors that I can shape and form my body and the entirety of my health in a way that keeps it fit and functional for a longer time.

But I also know that, if I never take a break and I work out constantly to a degree my body can’t handle I would break it and, pushed far enough, I would eventually die. It is on of the easiest examples we can conjure to illustrate the principles of hormesis as they exist from a biological perspective and an example that is one we most often want to adopt in order to improve our lives. 

Cold Stress

If you have not heard of the Wim Hof Method from Tim Ferriss or Lewis Howes or Kevin Rose or countless other lifehackers, you must be living under a personal development rock. One of the three pillars of Wim Hof’s Method for better health, mental and physical, is cold immersion therapy.

Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, you progressively acclimate your body to colder and colder experiences of immersion. Why would we do this? There are countless benefits of cold immersion including improved immune function, improved fat loss, improved sleep quality and balancing of hormone levels, just to name a few.

WimHofI have taken daily cold showers for the past three years and I can tell you personally that it is the highlight of my morning routine. The instant, breath stealing shock of the cold on my skin brings everything to life. It is an immediate awareness and focus of attention on the moment and on the feelings of your body and mind.

I come out of that shower feeling sharp, energized, and ready to take on the world and those are only the mental benefits that combine with the physical benefits listed above. If you really want to experience the joy of a single hormetic stressor my recommendation is cold stress. Is it insanely difficult to discipline yourself to step into a cold shower every morning? Yes. Is it worth the stress of it all, physically and mentally? An unequivocal, fuck yes!

Fasting

Science doesn’t prescribe a one size fits all with fasting. I commit to one 24 hour fast per week and then regular intermittent fasting for most of the week. This is my sweet spot and it is just the right amount of discomfort for me to benefit from without moving into down right destruction of my body.

As someone who works out hard, daily, I understand the need for proper nutrition and how that relates to energy and strength. Intermittent fasting is a completely legitimate method of nutritional eating that provides you with all the nutrients you need to continue to lift hard, heavy, and support a healthy weight and physique. Many people with better fucking abs than me swear by it and the science backs it up.

What you get most from it from a scientific perspective is something called autophagy

Autophagy is basically the cellular process of recycling. When the body is in a fasted state it disassembles dysfunctional cells in the body and uses the materials from them for some other use. That’s pretty fucking amazing, isn’t it? When you are fasting your body will go looking around for dysfunctional or degraded cells in your body and break them down to use the spare parts to fix other cells.

Autophagy has been linked to improved aging and health and has been identified as a key cellular concept in keeping us youthful and in good health for a longer period. This means that fasting, in a controlled and meaningful way, can extend our lifespan and not only that, make those additional years more youthful and more meaningful.

Summary

This is an obviously non exhaustive list of hormetic stressors. There are so many more examples out there, both philosophical and biological. My intent was not to cover all of them, but to give you a starting point to explore the concept of hormesis, philosophically and biologically.

I want to be perfectly clear about something before I end this article. This theory of hormesis has nothing to do with not being weak. It is not a call to swallow your tears and “act like a man” or whatever other masculine bullshit that people want to make it about. There is a great deal of strength and power in tenderness and vulnerability. Sometimes it is the strongest and most courageous thing you can do and that is part of the strength you need to recognize when you look at these hormetic stressors.

None of these stressors are going to feel the same to everyone. Some people will have a more difficult time with things that other people will find easy to bear. Everyone should know and understand their own capacity for suffering and should reach as far outside of their comfort zone as much as possible. That is where the opportunity for growth lies. That is where the struggle becomes something that aids in our growth and that is where you will find Nietzsche’s, and natures, strength to endure.

 

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