On January 26, 2017, Sue Bethanis hosted clinical psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson. Dr. Robertson is an expert at applying the latest psychological and neuroscience research to contemporary political, health, social, economic and business affairs in a very accessible manner. Professor Robertson discussed his new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, a revelatory study of how and why we react to pressure in the way we do, with real practical benefits to how we live.

Favorite Quote:

“In order to control your anxiety you have to believe that you can.”

Robertson says in order to gain control of your emotional state, thinking patterns and behavior there is a fundamental prerequisite that must exist before you can exercise that control – you need to believe that it is possible.


Stress plays a huge part in leaders’ lives and can be both a hindrance and motivator. When your perception of a demanding situation exceeds your ability to cope with that demand – you feel anxious. Anxiety is the activation of the autonomic nervous system which prepares us for fight or flight. This is meant to prepare us to deal with short term danger or opportunity and also gives us the ability to focus.

Too much stress can be debilitating. A moderate amount is extremely good for the mind. Robertson explains that stress causes the brain to secrete a chemical called noradrenaline. “The brain doesn’t perform at its best with too little or too much of this chemical. There’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner.”

Anxious responses are habits that we learn. To overcome a habit you need to engage in repetition in order to reshape and gradually replace your old habit with a new habit. Most of us are impatient and easily get demoralized or discouraged. Often, taking a medication reduces your belief in your own ability to control these habits and sabotage the hard work you need to do in order to change an emotional habit. People have a desire for a fast fix.

Robertson says that here is evidence that young adults that have little to no adversity in their lives end up becoming more emotionally vulnerable than those with moderate levels of adversity. “Paradoxically, there is a sweet spot of stress that people need to experience in their lives for them to achieve emotional resilience when they are adults. The overprotection of young people and having a slightly coddle existence means that they are going to be more emotionally vulnerable in the real world of work and all the stresses that go with it.” They experience symptoms of arousal because they have never really experience failure or threat.

Unlike animals that live in the moment, humans can torture themselves with past memories and anticipation of future ones. We can expand this indefinitely and make ourselves anxious long beyond the period of acute stress and make it become chronic.

According to Robertson, there are distinct techniques we can learn in order to reframe our approach to stress. “We can change the chemistry of the brain just as much as any antidepressant or anti-anxiety drug can, but we have to learn the habits to do that,” he says. Genes cannot be changed by environment or experience but the functioning of genes can. “We have the ability to shape our mental destiny.”

  • Breathe. Take five long, low breaths in and out. Temporarily apply a routine that you have practiced and anticipated in advance can change the chemistry of your brain and help you build confidence.
  • Set goals. Setting goals for ourselves also helps to change the chemistry of our brain. He says, “It could be as seemingly small as getting out of the house and walking 200 yards down the street — something that challenges you to a degree and gives you a feeling of accomplishment to have completed.” The good feeling you get when you achieve a goal increases the dopamine in our brain and part of the reward network. Increased dopamine is a natural antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug. This is where behavior is very important. If you are feeling anxious setting small goals for yourself can stretch you. Achieving these goals will allow your brain to create this natural anti-anxiety compound.
  • Squeeze your hand. According to Robertson, “One way to give the left frontal part of your brain a boost is to squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds, release it for 15.”
  • Visualize it.  Say the words “I feel excited.” Our mind only knows what emotion we are having by context. So, we can trick our mind to be excited instead of anger or upset. “Practice an imagined situation so when you actually come to that, you won’t have to try to remember how to handle it”, says Robertson. It will become a habit.
  • Posture. You can also change your posture out of the defensive, aggressive, or defeated posture into a calm and erect posture. Robertson believes that people who adopt a power pose actually feel more in charge or confident. Posture affects our psychological state and the functioning of our brain.

What we found most interesting:

“One of the greatest motivations that humans have is to feel in control,” says Robertson. Feeling out of control is hugely anxiety provoking and particularly so for some people more than others. If we can predict what is going to happen even if what is going to happen is no good you can engage in this amazing capacity of the human brain to plan and prepare. “Most people can adjust to most situations. The change is not comfortable, but you can get there.” The trouble with uncertainty is you can’t engage in mental preparation and planning. This creates a sense of being out of control. Being out of control is an extreme example of helplessness where you don’t believe there is anything you can do to change the outcome, and that leads to passivity. According to Dr. Robertson, “If I can predict something that is going to happen in my mind I can enact certain scenarios and anticipate certain outcomes (hopefully success). Once you stop taking positive actions it pushes your brain into a flight response. Once it is in that mode it is difficult for it to activate the reward and anticipation mode.”

To learn more about Dr. Robertson and his thoughts on shaping your brain’s response to pressure, listen to the WiseTalk recording.