Anti-fragility & therapy

September 21, 2021 | By More

Brendan Clarke

BABCP registered Cognitive Behavioural Therapist

A few months ago I got a wedding present of crystal wine glasses. On the package it said “fragile”. Last week I got a book in the post that had no such description because books are more resistant to being dropped or thrown around the place. Let’s say that crystal is “fragile” and books are “robust”. In some situations, we might feel fragile or sensitive to knocks, and in others we are robust and we can carry on in spite of them. But unlike crystal wine glasses or books, living things like ourselves have another special attribute, where we are strong not in spite of knocks but because of them. The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term “Antifragile” to describe this special quality that humans – as well as other living things – have. 

Examples of anti-fragility

There are many different examples of activities that can unlock this capacity of antifragility within us, some new and some old. An old one that has seen a resurgence of late is intermittent fasting. Lots of spiritual traditions have made this a core part of their practice for hundreds of years. In addition, there’s cardio exercise which humans have done since the dawn of time, but as with the other methods, it’s only recently that we have been able to identify the specific ways in which these practices make a difference to our brains and bodies. 

I’ll start with an old one – Intermittent Fasting. This is something that people have been practicing for centuries. The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch said “instead of using medicine, fast a day.” Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, have always incorporated fasting into their spiritual practices. But is fasting good for us? There is growing evidence that it is. It has recently become a hot topic for research, with recent findings suggesting that it can have benefits for several different difficulties, from preventing Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, to alleviating symptoms of diabetes such as insulin sensitivity, (this essentially means how effectively insulin can do its job of clearing sugar from our bloodstream). Putting these different features together, it makes sense that fasting seems to significantly boost the lifespan of animals, with one study showing that rats who fasted every other day lived over 80% longer than those who didn’t.

Research into its impact on human longevity are in their early stages, but initial results are promising. Have a look here to see more:

There are many other examples of people becoming stronger because of stress to our systems and not in spite of it. For example, take one that’s become really popular in Covid times – cold water exposure in sea swimming. There is strong evidence that this is helpful in numerous ways, both physically, in terms of increased cardiovascular and immune health, and mentally, in alleviating low mood and depression. You can find out more about this here:

When experienced swimmers in good health practice cold water swimming in a regular, graded and adjusted manner, it appears to bring health benefits. Interestingly, at the other end of the thermometer, sauna use shows strong evidence of impressive health benefits, particularly for our hearts, with regular sauna users apparently less likely to die from heart disease:

Then, there’s cardio exercise which has shown evidence of decreasing the rate at which our brains age, as well as enhancing our memories and ability to pay attention, possibly because of enhanced blood supply to the brain:

My favourite example

Please allow me one last example before I move on. This is a personal favourite for two reasons: 1) It’s quite “far out” and 2) I learned about it from a client and its always fun to learn when you are supposed to be teaching. He told me about a remarkable man named Bill Haast who cultivated his own “antifragility” in a singular way. For most of his life, Bill regularly injected himself with venom from his pet snakes, thereby building up an immunity. By slowly increasing the amount of stress that he exposed himself to, he was no longer affected by the powerful toxins in these dangerous creatures. In fact, Bill’s blood developed such potent antibodies to snake venom that it worked effectively as antivenom and on many occasions, he donated it to doctors treating snakebite victims. It’s estimated that he saved the lives of more than 20 people in this way, although he had plenty of opportunities as he lived to be 100. Coincidence? Or the power of antifragility?

I’m a CBT therapist and as such, helping people to grow by overcoming difficulties is a core part of what I try to do. This can be neatly summed up in the following 2 graphs:

In the first one, Anxiety/discomfort rises sharply when we confront something that we are afraid of. When we escape it, anxiety quickly drops. However, the next time we’re faced with this difficulty, our anxiety rises sharply again, possibly to a higher level than the first time around. In CBT, we call this avoidance.

However, as you can see the second graph shows a different pattern. Similarly to graph #1, we’re confronted with a stressor, but this time, we stay with it. So the period of discomfort lasts longer. But, somehow as we grapple with the stress, it comes down slowly over time. This means that the next time, it’s not as stressful. If we continue to do this again and again, the stress level keeps going in that direction, i.e. down, until things that were once incredibly difficult to tolerate, become a breeze. To any of you who have gotten in on the sea-swimming trend, this might sound familiar to you. 

Tips for cultivating your own antifragility

  1. Self-Compassion

You may have noticed that each of the activities I’ve listed so far have one thing in common – they are a pain in the a**e. So how can they involve self-compassion? I would say that a key component of compassion and self-compassion is wisdom. And wisdom involves making choices that are best for us in the long run and not just best for us now. Sometimes that involves having-temporarily-a mild pain in the a**e now so you don’t have a massive one later. But that self-compassionate starting point is key, so that you take on these difficult things temporarily as a way of taking care of yourself in the future. Self-compassion is also helpful for knowing how much to take on and knowing when to apply the brakes and check-in with yourself, and sometimes stop if you’ve taken on too much. That brings  us to the next step.

2. Make the stressors Gradual

You don’t have to do it all at once, it is going to take some guesswork to figure out how much you should take on to begin with. If you’re doing this in therapy, e.g. taking on the stressor of anxiety, then your therapist can help you to figure out what the right level of stress is for you. If you’re doing it alone, then a good rule of thumb could be to estimate how much you think you can take on and then halve it for your first exposure. 

3. Record it

This is a golden rule of CBT. If there’s something you don’t want to do, then there’s probably a good reason for that, and those good reasons can be stubborn. I remember standing at the water’s edge in Silver Strand last December thinking, “I really, really, really don’t want to do this. In fact this seems crazy. Why am I doing this? I should leave”. That’s when my homework became useful. Because, lots of the previous times I’d been in the same position, I’d made a note of three things:

A – How I felt before

B – What I did

C – How I felt after

Each of these notes looked something like this:

A – Terrified, shaking, doubting wisdom of choices that led me here

B – Swam

C – Euphoric

That evidence starts to build up over time. So even if the heart is saying “Categorically – NO!”, the  head can come in and say “But hey, remember all the evidence”. The more that’s there, the harder it is to ignore.  In my experience this can make fasting, cardio, saunas and sea-swimming all more doable. I can’t speak for snake venom at the moment. But, if one day I am hiking in Southern Italy and I get bitten by a European Viper, I hope I can think to myself “something good could come from this in the long term”. And that is the essence of antifragility. 

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