Becoming a battleship: How the right balance of stress makes you stronger

Dr. Laura Roxann Alexander
7 min readJan 16, 2023

All my life I have wanted to be able to drive a manual transmission car. Since I was a teenager I have been in love with the muscle cars of the 60s and 70s and the power that those cars seemed to bring to whoever was driving them. My parents didn’t own a manual and so I learned how to drive on an automatic.

I had a few opportunities to learn in college and later when my ex-husband owned a manual. The fear that I would mess the car up was very real. After stalling out a few times and feeling like an utter failure I gave up the venture entirely. Resigning to the fact that learning how to drive a stick just wasn’t something I could do. I’ve always regretted that decision to give up.

New year, new challenges

This year I am pursuing optimal health to restore thyroid function and stop gut dysfunction, but my pursuit of health isn’t just about my physical health. Mental health is a huge piece of the wellness puzzle and must be addressed. Mental and physical health are closely intertwined and our thoughts and emotions have a direct impact on the function of our body. The brain is always listening. The brain is always on alert for danger and it responds in real-time by sending out signals called hormones to other tissues and organs in the body in response to whatever threat might be present; even if that threat isn’t real. Fear of an outcome will invoke our flight or fight response just like impending physical harm. It was fear that has always held me back from learning something I desperately wanted to learn.

Fear froze me. When I was a young woman I was making yet another attempt to learn how to drive a stick when I stalled at a stop light. I froze and could not get the car moving. I panicked and pleaded to just switch drivers. It was like my brain shut off completely and I was powerless to even try again. Two weeks ago, while practicing again with my husband, the same thing happened and I froze. Once he switched with me and we were back on our way, I felt silly, powerless, and ultimately sad because it is important to me to always be growing and learning no matter how old I am. Has fear been stopping me from reaching my full potential my entire life?

Why was I letting fear stop me from doing what I truly wanted to do? What exactly am I afraid of happening? What would truly be the outcome that would be so harmful to my survival? The more I thought about this the more I realized the answer was nothing! There is no threat to my survival. There is no real threat to the car. If someone is behind I can put on my hazard lights and keep trying until the cows come home. There is no danger. I vowed I would keep trying until I mastered the clutch and the gas and even if I stalled I would take a deep breath and try again.

Luckily, my husband has the patience of a saint and we kept trying for a few days until I felt comfortable. Then it was the real test. Driving all alone. Putting myself in a situation with lots of traffic and just doing it. And I did! I drove through Chapel Hill and up Franklin St. and back onto interstate 40 for some lovely stop-and-go traffic, and all the way home, stalling only once at a stop sign. Once I parked and turned the engine off I gave a little shout for joy and a fist bump in the air. I did it! I actually did it.

Say yes to the challenge

The next day it was a frigid day outside and I had no motivation to get out and exercise. But I thought back to the previous day when I did something hard and it didn’t kill me, it made me more confident and boosted my self-esteem. So I laced up my shoes and went for a 3-mile run on the trails behind our house. I don’t run much anymore, call me a recovering cardio queen, but I do enjoy a nice easy run in the forest to clear my head and connect with my breath. Sometimes I have my best lightbulb moments while running. This time was no different. I realized that my entire life I have held back because of fear. That I don’t truly know where it comes from or why, but it impacts me when I make decisions, especially those involving my career and even my own health.

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” Joseph Campbell

Fear of failing is my ultimate fear. I am working on where that comes from in therapy, but because I fear failing, that means I am not open to new opportunities for growth and success. I fear failing as a wellness coach and business owner so that keeps me from putting my name and my beliefs into the vast world of the internet. That ultimately slows my progress. Fear can be negative for many of us, especially if we do not feel brave enough to overcome it. But fear can also make us stronger. Fear is a stressor and in the right dose, a stressor can make us stronger and more resilient. The bravest people are those that have fear, but that do whatever it is anyway.

Hormesis

Both mental and physical stressors in the right amount cause an adaptive response in our biology. This response is called hormesis. It is a physiological adaptive response in our biological system to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves functionality and tolerance to more severe challenges. Simply put, hormesis is our ability to withstand low-dose stress and not only come out of that stress intact with minimal damage but just a little bit stronger and a little bit more resilient.

I like to picture hormesis as the process of becoming a battleship. What do you need to cross the ocean, fight an enemy, and not sink under the water? You can’t get through a long sea voyage in a dingy and you will probably drown if your ship has too many holes in it. A battleship, however, is ready for anything. The battleship analogy applies to our body as a system and also at a cellular level.

What is the state of each individual cell within our tissues and organs? Do our cells have the right balance of fluidity and strength in the membrane to allow nutrients in like the shell of a ship’s hull that allows both strength and flexibility in response to movement in the water? How about the engines of the cells? Are the mitochondria producing enough energy to fuel the cell but at the same time minimizing oxidative damage to the entire machinery of the cell? What about the artillery? Do you have cannons lining the sides of your ship or are you equipped with a bow and arrow and a couple of slingshots? What is the state of your immune system? Are you able to withstand an invasion of bacteria or do you get sick more often than not? Hormesis is the idea that short bursts of stressors can trigger a cascade of processes that will enhance health, slow aging, and make you more resilient to future stress, just like a battleship that has seen enough fights to know exactly how many cannons to carry and how much maintenance the engine needs during a journey.

Physical examples of ways to promote hormesis are cold plunges, exercise, and consumption of what most people think of as antioxidants like vegetables and fruit, but which are actually prooxidants, meaning they challenge the body with enough stress to elicit a healthy response like tissue healing and mitochondrial protection against damage. Fasting is another example that can promote hormesis by liberating fat stores through beta-oxidation, which promotes energy generation.

What about mental examples of hormesis? Evidence suggests that regular engagement in intellectual activities is beneficial for the brain by activating pathways in neurons via neurotransmitter stimulation like glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. However, too much glutamate can cause damage to neurons, so an appropriate level of mental and emotional stress is critical for maintaining health. Learning something new, overcoming challenges like fear of driving a stick or speaking in public, and even just having a lot on your plate to juggle at work or family, are examples of manageable levels of hormetic stress. Stressors can become toxic, especially if you feel helpless or out of control, so the key is to find ways to balance both types of stressors in ways that you feel challenged and successful, not defeated and exhausted.

If I had let the fear continue to win, I would never have felt the sheer thrill of being able to drive with my entire body, of being connected to a powerful machine, or the improvement in my motor skills from my right and left leg as I find balance with the clutch and gas pedal. By overcoming a fear that has weighed me down for years I feel more confident. That boost of confidence has translated to my writing hobby, how I feel about my current physical abilities in the gym, and even my outlook on promoting my business and my name in my local community.

Life without vital stressors is not a good thing and ultimately can be harmful. The absence of challenge can degrade the body just as easily as too much challenge. Stress is dose-dependent, not enough and you can’t cross the ocean for survival, but too much and you have too many holes in the hull to even get started. Make 2023 your year to find balance through challenges, both mental and emotional, and let go of fears, worries, and anxieties that may be holding you back from a life fully lived.

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Dr. Laura Roxann Alexander

Pharmacist.Personal Trainer.Lift heavy, skip the run.Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.