Toughened Individuals

Published 1. September 2016.

I pressed my foot down on the clutch and guided the heavy gearshift into the spot for the lower gear, then eased my foot up, trying to be as smooth as possible. The engine had been rumbling along like normal, but all of a sudden the friendly rumblings stopped. This wasn't the first time the engine had died on me. The tractor was the first manual-transmission vehicle I'd ever driven, and I was still in the learning curve; the engine would often cut out if I mistimed the release of the clutch. This time, though, it was on a steep hill.

The tractor began to roll backwards, picking up speed rapidly, and was soon hurtling down the perilously narrow path, squeezed between a fenced paddock holding several horses and the ditch. It was technically an irrigation ditch, but in Iceland that meant it was more of a ravine; nearly a mini-canyon—ten feet across and more than six feet deep, enough to walk several cows down it side by side with room to spare. And there I was, mere feet from tipping this massive, careening vehicle right down into the deep gash in the earth—a possibility that could very well result in serious injury.

I felt strangely calm. The engine dying wasn't new, and I had brakes, which I'd pressed down as soon as I felt the wheels begin their backwards roll. But they weren't engaging—the tractor didn't stop or even slow down, and in the few moments that had already passed, the two-ton vehicle had gained even more momentum. I looked back to see where it was aimed: straight for the ravine. That should have been a moment for panic. Yet I remained effortlessly calm. I was oddly fascinated by this tranquil feeling, but filed that away to deal with the immediate and much more pressing problem. With only a moment to act, I focused my effort on steering the tractor back onto the dirt path, looking over my shoulder and carefully turning the wheel to follow the curve as it passed the horse fence and barn. After the path straightned out, I set the gear to neutral and turned the key to restart the engine—to no effect. Just then I remembered that the brakes could be finnicky even on flatter ground, and tried again, nearly standing on the pedal, mashing it to the floor. This time they engaged, and the tractor gave an abrupt kick and shuddered to a stop. I put it in park and jumped out, checking to make sure everything was alright, including myself. The tractor was fine, the fences were intact, and I felt no sign of the adrenaline rush that I would have expected—no shaking hands or body, normally paced heart rate, and no increase in body tempterature. I drove the tractor back up the hill to its parking spot and mentally noted the experience down as another odd case of performance under pressure.

Later, upon reflection, I postulated that my regular exposure to risk, albeit smaller and with less severe consequences for a mistake, through parkour and other movement practices is what allowed me to act so rationally under conditions with significant danger. While I understood that intuitively and had pondered and written about it in the past, it was confirmed more directly, and named, in the book Between the Hour of Dog and Wolf by John Coates—an unexpected source, as the book is focused on Wall Street traders and how their behaviors change when they're either winning or losing. The name given for the phenomenon of calmness under pressure I experienced was being "toughened." This isn't just semantics, either; Coates describes the physiological differences in individuals with this quality:

"In a toughened individual, amine [dopamine, adrenaline, noradrenaline] levels are lower at rest, rise more strongly when stressed and shut off quickly. Since this person's physiology is capable of handing the stressors being thrown at him, his homeostasis is not thrown out of balance, so he handles the stress without emotional distress [emphasis mine]. Physiological coping and emotional distress seem to be alternatives—if your body is coping, why get upset? As we saw when discussing homeostasis, emotions erupt, urging us to try alternative behaviors, when our body, left on autopilot, cannot handle a crisis on autopilot. The research into toughness has suggested that our brain silently compares the demands being made on us against the resources we can draw on (taking into account our training and skill). If our resources are sufficient we view the event as a challenge and relish it; if not we see it as a threat and shrink from it....

"What is remarkable about the research into toughening is the discovery that these amine-producing cells, like muscles, not only need a recovery period to rebuild their inventories, but can also be trained to increase their productive capacity. The greater this capacity, the less likely they are to become depleted during stress, the more likely we are to view events as challenges, and the less likely we are to draw on the more damaging cortisol response. A strong first response by amines is the sign of someone who is coping; a strong cortisol response, someone who is not."

What's fascinating to me is that the mindset of viewing novelty as a welcome challenge is echoed in the obstacles-into-opportunities narrative that underlies the philosophy and practice of parkour. I hadn’t realized it, but through my practice I was turning myself into a toughened individual.

After all, the key point about training to be toughened is frequent exposure to danger and potential failure. Parkour is a skill-based art, and every moment of practice holds the risk of failure. Between the physical nature, interacting with hard physical obstacles, and a particular part of the parkour ethos—dubbed “breaking a jump,” the act of successfully completing a jump or technique for the first time—the practice of parkour acts as an amazingly effective way to develop this resilience and toughness. There's an emphasis within parkour on seeking out opportunities to break jumps, particularly those that are at the edge of ability your or comfort zone— and it's these that will trigger the stressed state. Learning how to feel the fear and still act is what makes the practice of breaking jumps so potent and far-reaching for every other potentially stressful situation in one's life.

It's not a matter of never being scared. Confronting and acknowledging fear and acting anyway is exactly how one becomes toughened. Being toughened means you react to frightening and potentially dangerous situations calmly, allowing you to make the correct decisions in the matter of a moment without panicking or losing control. It also means you avoid the problem of constant worry, which wears down the mind and body. The resultant obstacles-into-opportunities mindset makes improving one’s health, relationships, career and life a breeze; even a game—you’re less afraid to ask for the date or promotion, tackle the big project, or head off on an adventure when you’re toughened.

So what does this mean for you? How can you train your mind and body to better handle stressful situations, from small annoyances to matters of life and death? The process is surprisingly straightforward: take small risks, consider failure a badge of honor and a demonstration of the fact that you're trying, and do things that scare you every day.