Wellness: Good Stress: Discomfort and Doing Hard Things

Les Brown said it best when he said, “If you do what is easy, your life will be hard. However, if you do what is hard, your life will be easy.” He and many others have espoused the value of doing uncomfortable and hard things. Part of the value is physical, pushing our boundaries and expanding what feels comfortable to us. Another part of the value is psychological, showing ourselves that we are tough and that the anticipation of discomfort is often worse than the discomfort itself. The latter is where I have found the most value from practicing discomfort, reminding me of another great quote.

“I’ve experienced a great deal of pain and suffering in my life. Most of which never happened.”

Mark Twain

This quote reminds me of how much effort I’ve spent worrying about hard or uncomfortable things that might happen or trying to avoid discomfort. Things like dreading outdoor social events because I’d be hot or re-planning trips if it might rain. In contrast, a few weeks ago my furnace broke and couldn’t be repaired for 4 days when the weather was just above freezing at night and not that much warmer during the day. Before practicing discomfort, this situation would have made me miserable and maybe even go to a hotel. Instead, I quickly accepted that I’d be cold for a few days, appreciated that it wouldn’t last forever, and was grateful that I can usually take climate control for granted.

Beyond losing the anxiety about being uncomfortable, another important lesson I’ve learned by practicing discomfort is that it won’t last forever. Whenever we encounter an unpleasant environment (like cold) or emotion (like fear), our brain tells us that it will last forever until we actively fix it. Evolutionarily, this helped us to survive, but our circumstances are not typically so dire these days. Bundling up for a short walk from the parking lot to our building might help us avoid feeling cold, but it also doesn’t hurt to be cold for a few minutes. In fact, it might actually be good for us, activating genes that improve our mood and our health.

I understand that intentionally practicing physical discomfort, like extreme cold or heat, might seem like an exercise in suffering with little application to the typical problems of modern life. However, through practicing physical discomfort, I’ve learned that I can tolerate all sorts of hard things. I’ve also become better at tolerating them, making it easier to get tedious or difficult tasks done, like grading or writing, without procrastinating or other unproductive strategies. In general, it has made me a happier person who enjoys activities more and dreads personal responsibility less.

Rule 1: Heat Exposure – I take at least one hot bath a week.

The health benefits of sauna are pretty incredible (see Rhonda Patrick talk about it linked below). I don’t have a sauna, though, so I do hot baths instead. I use Dr. Patrick’s recommendations, which are to be submerged up to the neck for at least 20 minutes in water that is just tolerably hot (for me that’s ~105 degrees Fahrenheit). Within a few minutes, my face is sweating, my heart is pounding, and at least a few times in that 20 minutes, I feel like I want to quit. It’s incredibly important to work up your heat tolerance because the body has much fewer tools for dealing with overheating than underheating. Make sure you’re not overdoing it. Intentional stress and practicing discomfort should always feel safe. If you don’t feel like you’re doing it for your benefit, it’s just stress.

Rule 2: Cold Exposure – If it’s sunny, I do at least one sleeveless walk (as long as it’s above freezing).

As a southern girl, heat exposure is a lot easier for me than cold exposure. The gold standard in cold exposure is a cold plunge in cold water, which I don’t have. The next best thing is cold showers, which I find practically unbearable (maybe someday I’ll work up to it). Instead, I’ve opted to under-dress to go outside in the cold. I wouldn’t say it’s more pleasant than a cold shower, especially because it lasts longer, but it also gets some sun on my skin, so it’s a health two-fer. As long as it’s above freezing and the sun is out, which is 3-4 times per week, I’ll do a 10-15 minute walk in a tank top around the middle of the day.

Rule 3: The 2-minute rule and the 5-second countdown

Two tools that have changed my life, at least when it comes to undesirable tasks, are the 2-minute rule and the 5-second countdown. The 2-minute rule is from the book “Getting Things Done,” which describes a productivity system that I like better than others I’ve tried. One of the features is that if a task will take 2 minutes or less, do it immediately. You’ll spend more time capturing it for later or thinking about it than you would if you just did it. For example, need to set up or fill out a doodle poll? Just do it. It’s not worth remembering to do it later.

The other tool is the 5-second countdown, which I got from Mel Robbins. Whenever you recognize that you are dreading, avoiding, or postponing something, give yourself a 5-second countdown to prepare, and then do it. She said that she used to use this tool to get out of bed in the morning when her life had fallen apart. I use it to respond to difficult emails, have tough conversations with students, get started on administrative tasks that end up taking just 10 minutes to complete, or anything else that I used to postpone for days or weeks. Now I save all of that time and skip the anticipation of the task, which is usually worse than the task itself.

For more information about discomfort and doing hard things, check out the episode of Huberman Lab Podcast with Rhonda Patrick. These are two of my favorite scientists in the wellness space. In this episode, they talk about the physical benefits of cold and heat exposure in addition to the psychological ones I’ve discussed here. This discussion starts at 1:51:14, but the rest of the episode is full of all kinds of good stress for your body. For a deeper dive into the psychological aspects, many books, such as “The Comfort Crisis” by journalist Michael Easter and “Can’t Hurt Me” by Navy SEAL David Goggins, explore this aspect.

For more blog posts about wellness, return to the wellness series page.

One thought on “Wellness: Good Stress: Discomfort and Doing Hard Things

  1. Pingback: Wellness: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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