Voluntary Hardship – The Vaccine for Life

Every year on my birthday I like to do something that challenges me both physically and mentally. Maybe it’s in defiance to my ever looming demise, my Peter Pan syndrome, or my awkwardness in a party scenario, but I have grown to relish my yearly crucible.

This tradition started on my 40th birthday when I completed a half Ironman distance triathlon. This was followed by the Spartan Beast obstacle course race, a mountain marathon, and last year a mile long, cross country, walking kettlebell swing (just over 2000 swings). Along the way I have been lucky enough to raise money for a number of mental health charities, a cause close to my heart.

This year I am attempting the Goggins 4x4x48 challenge; running 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours, and I intend to run the first and last run up the local mountain. On paper this doesn’t sound so bad. It’s only 4 miles after all. After the third run at midnight I think it will start to take on a different feel, and at 4 am on the second night, with minimal, if any sleep it’s going to feel pretty rough.

But, in doing these challenges, the realisation hit me about how useful a tool this mini dose of suffering is. But like everything I have ‘discovered’, these things have long been known.

Voluntary Hardship

Our ancestors faced a number of stressors every day; being too cold, being too hot, being hungry, physical strain, dehydration, fatigue, etc.

Our ancestors did everything possible to avoid discomfort. Discomfort for them was one or a combination of the following: starving to death, freezing to death, or being eaten alive.

In their quest to dodge any of the above outcomes, they had to work. They walked for miles gathering food and water, collected fire wood, sprinted after animals, sprinted away from animals, climbed trees, dug into the earth, moved logs and rocks to build shelters, we were the apex species of adaptability.

Fast forward to now. All those things we did to avoid discomfort have now been reclassified as uncomfortable. Everything is designed to make life ‘easy’. I can order myself a 3 course meal and have it delivered to my doorstep without ever moving from my sofa.

This at first seems like the pinnacle of civility, until we look at the true cost.

Raging metabolic diseases, cognitive dysfunction, epidemic level mental health issues; we’ve weakened both our immune systems and our ability to adapt to an ever shifting world.

The human body and mind are a miracle of natural engineering. By giving them regular, acute, short lived stressors, we are prompted to adapt. Adaptation is the human species’ superpower. We adapt to be stronger, more resilient, better than before.

This is where voluntary hardship comes in.

By choosing the more difficult path, by opting for a little discomfort, we enable ourselves to get more robust; better able to deal with the shit life is sure to throw at us.

This is the concept of Hormesis, the adaptive response of a living organism to mild environmental, nutritional or even voluntary challenges through which the organism’s system amends its tolerance to more dangerous stress factors. In simple terms; by exposing ourselves to mild stressors we can build a tolerance against them. This is essentially how a vaccine works, and this has been known for a long time.

Mithridates VI, ruler of the Kingdom of Pontas, in the 1st century BCE, was so fearful of being poisoned like his father, that he gradually administered small amounts of poison to make himself immune. Again, the similarity to me and eggs is astounding. This idea gave rise to the practice of Mithridatism, used by many venomous snake handlers.

The ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers were all over this too.

 “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man without trials.”

Seneca
A polished turd

This is my power stone.

Forget your rose quartz or your purple amethyst, this stone holds some great power and wisdom.

This is a Coprolite. A fossilised dinosaur turd.

It reminds me that shit happens. It always has, even for our dinosaur ancestors, and it always will happen.

There is something comforting about knowing that everyone has to carry shit around with them and that I haven’t been specially chosen to be shat upon. So, I literally carry a piece of it in my pocket each day as a reminder. I think it makes me a bit more compassionate too.

The beauty of the Coprolite also reminds me of something my Grandad said:

“Things can’t grow without a liberal application of shit.”

In every nugget of shit that befalls us there is always the potential for beauty.

Give it time. With stress, friction and patience every turd can be polished.

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.

Seneca

By exposing ourselves to small amounts of discomfort, be that physical or mental, we can harness this adaptive ability to weather the storms of life.

Epictetus, another great Stoic philosopher, urged his students to sleep rough, to wear uncomfortable and unfashionable clothing, and to only eat hard and grimy bread for a number of days, to inoculate themselves against ridicule and discomfort, and to make them appreciate the true gift of what they already had.

And it seems that many people are seeing the need to utilise voluntary hardship. There has been a huge rise in endurance events like triathlons, marathons, and obstacle races in recent years, and in the past year alone we have seen an absolute explosion in the number of people trying cold water exposure and swimming.

I think our bodies know we need it. Millennia of adaptive gene expression have been lying dormant for too long. Evolution wants you to keep moving forward because we are not at our evolutionary apex, we have merely stopped for a quick breather. And the tea break is over!

For me the main benefit of seeking out voluntary hardship is the mental fortitude I have gained. I have struggled with anxiety for much of my life, and voluntary hardship has been my single biggest weapon in dealing with it.

Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, famously stated that:

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.

Viktor E. Frankl

By regularly applying a little discomfort, a little voluntary hardship, I find that I am able to widen that space, allowing me to respond in a much calmer, more satisfactory way. This skill seems to transfer into all aspects of my life, slowly making my ability to choose my response a little more achievable.

This is a process/practice that author Scott Carney refers to as ‘The Wedge’.

The more I lean into discomfort, the further away from pain I seem to travel. It really does feel that on the other side of discomfort lies growth.

And by putting myself through the grinder in these challenges I prove to myself that even when I am deep in the ‘pain cave’, when my demons are my only companions, if I just keep moving forward eventually I come out the other side. Concrete proof that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “This too shall pass”.

Voluntary hardship can be anything, and it’s all relative. You don’t have to go to extremes. Remember we are building up our resilience to discomfort slowly.

  • Cold showers
  • Skipping a meal or two now and then
  • Taking the stairs
  • Walking rather than driving (or purposefully parking furthest away)
  • Wear one less layer than you would normally
  • Hot saunas
  • Tough workout
  • Wearing ridiculous outfits in public
  • WiFi free evenings
  • Leaving your phone at home
  • Sleeping on the floor or outside

The opportunity for a little hardship is endless. The benefits are immense, and there is science to back this up too. Check out this cool study.

This is the secret to one of Wild Life’s main tenets: Be Harder to Kill.

If you feel that you are in a position to donate to my chosen charity, Strongmen, then please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/glenn48 . And please share this with a friend.

Strongmen support men suffering from bereavement by offering weekend retreats to give them the chance to talk with others in similar circumstances. They also run a peer telephone support service, Man2Man, run by trained volunteers who have also suffered bereavement. strongmen.org.uk

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: