Stress has become an epidemic, and it influences the health, happiness, and well-being of millions of people every day. This is especially true for people living in the western world. Is it that we truly are much more stressed than we used to be? If you think the obvious answer is yes, consider that many of our ancestors in previous generations fought in world wars and suffered through seriously intense life-threatening stress. So rather than assuming that modern humans are under so much more stress than previous generations, we might ask why is it that we are becoming more and more unable to cope with stress? Why are we becoming so fragile and susceptible to the negative effects of stress?
And more importantly, how can we change this negative spiral and increase stress tolerance? How can we become mentally and physically tougher, and make our bodies resilient in the face of stress?
This week, I am talking to Phillip Ghezelbash, an expert in stoicism and the author of ”The Stoic Body.” We will uncover some of the reasons why most people have difficulty coping with stress and how stoicism and specific types of resilience training can increase stress tolerance and take you from stress-fragile to stress-resilient.
In this podcast, you’ll learn.
- The reason why low stress tolerance is reaching epidemic proportions
- What is Stoic philosophy and how it can help improve your life
- Why voluntary discomfort is crucial to your health
- Why meditation surprisingly is a major discomfort
- How fasting makes you smarter
- What the ”Dichotomy of control” is, and why applying it to your life is imperative to your happiness
- The definition of good vs. bad stress (and why you should apply them to your life)
- How to become more resilient to stress
Download or listen on iTunes
Listen outside of iTunes
How to Increase Stress Tolerance and Resilience Through Stoicism and Voluntary Discomfort – Transcript
Ari Whitten: Hey everyone, this is Ari Whitten. And welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. Today I’m here with Philip Ghezelbash who is the author of this book I have right with me, “The Stoic Body”. A really fascinating book with a lot of interesting ideas. I picked it up because it sounded really similar to a book that I was actually working on and I saw this and I thought, “Wow, I wonder how many of these topics he’s actually covering in this book that he just released?” And I quickly discovered that he’s covering a lot of really fascinating stuff here that is similar in many ways to the stuff I’m talking about. So he’s a like-minded person, he is a health expert and fascinated with philosophy and all things health and fitness. And welcome. Philip, it’s a pleasure to have you on.
Phillip Ghezelbash: I’m blessed to be here. Ari, thanks for having me here.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. So I would love if you could just tell people a bit about your background and how you got interested in this because this book is really a very unique book. This is not a typical book on health and fitness. This is an integration of this ancient philosophy of Stoicism combined with modern health and fitness science and modern psychology. And so it’s this really beautiful synthesis of a lot of different fields. And I would love if you could just talk about how you got interested in this and what made you feel compelled to write a book like this.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. I guess I could give a brief background on how I got into all of this. And then I can move on to the book. So ever since I was a teenager, since I was about 15 or 16, I became fascinated with health. I’d spend so many hours reading random articles about nutrition and fitness. I really got into the gym. I went to university, studied something irrelevant, biology, environmental science, that kind of stuff. And then after university, I got certified as a trainer so I ended up working at a gym.
And after about a year working at the gym, I had this idea to write a book, just because I had some ideas on how to lose weight and I saw a lot of misinformation out there on the internet about fat loss. So I began to write a quick word file and bullet points on how to lose weight. And that began to grow and grow and grow and eventually became the book. But before it became the book I was writing about goals and how to set goals properly. And I integrated some quotes from Stoicism philosophy about how one should set goals the right way. And that’s when I saw how well the two merged together and that became the thesis for the book and slowly started to grow from there. And a year later it became “The Stoic Body”. So that’s how it started.
The definition of stoicism
Ari Whitten: Very cool. So I would love to just get into this, this whole thing of Stoicism.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure.
Ari Whitten: And this whole topic is not going to be all about philosophy but I want people to understand a little bit of the general idea of what Stoicism is all about for people who have never heard of it.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Okay.
Ari Whitten: What is this and is this really some kind of heady philosophy of a bunch of these academic types arguing with each other over the meaning of words? Or is it something a little bit more practical than that?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yeah, exactly. That’s the way people look at philosophy. And I’m not a philosopher as well, I’m just a trainer. So when you think about philosophy you just think about those arguments about the meaning of life and all of that stuff but the difference with Stoicism is that it’s very practical and applicable to daily life. And that’s something everybody can use.
So basically what Stoicism is it’s an ancient philosophy which came out of Greece. It’s a Greek-Roman philosophy and in some ways, it’s similar to Buddhism which people are more familiar with. And the goal for the Stoics is equanimity in the face of adversity, indifference in the face of life’s struggles and these sorts of things.
They had a bit of a motto which was to live in accordance with nature, and that means following through with different virtues that they had set out like temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom. And these are the four cardinal virtues which the Stoics based their lives on and they saw those virtues as the only good.
So we’re only left with about 1% of the texts from the Stoics, unfortunately. So, we don’t know as much as we’d like to know about their lives and their beliefs. But we’re left with enough to know what they were all about. And one of the virtues, like I said, is temperance.
That has a lot to do with self-control and discipline. And that’s really where I saw how that can be applied to health and fitness because I think so much of health and fitness isn’t necessarily about just knowing what’s good and bad for you. People know vegetables are good for you and junk food isn’t, but it’s about learning how to have that temperance and self-control, that moderation in daily life which is going to bring you results, long-term. So that’s the main way I see them both synergizing together.
How stoics lives in accordance with nature
Ari Whitten: Cool. So let’s dig into that just a little bit deeper. So this idea of living in accordance with nature, what does that really mean? Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. So basically it’s living through rationality and just living your life through these things, through courage and justice and temperance. And that’s going towards nature, right? It’s not natural to not take care of your body and eat what your body is expecting you to consume. So that’s an example of how I like to interpret it for health and fitness. There are some debates about it, and as with everything in philosophy there are people that disagree on certain things, but basically the way I see it is just living through what is logical and what is rational and what makes sense. And that’s basically the way I look at it.
Ari Whitten: Nice. So temperance, and then there were three other cardinal virtues. What are those?
Phillip Ghezelbash: So there’s justice, courage, and wisdom. And there were some arguments about these. For example, some of the Stoics thought that when you have one of these you have all of the others. Some of them thought they were all independent. So there’s a bit of controversy about that.
But yeah, basically the goal for the Stoics was to embody what they called the sage. And the sage is somebody with perfect wisdom, somebody who follows these cardinal virtues in every instance of their life, all the time. And that’s not something that a normal person can realistically achieve. Although they did think that one person every 500 years or something like that was a sage.
That’s not too relevant for today, but basically, perfect wisdom was the goal. And everybody’s imperfect but to strive towards that perfect wisdom I guess you could say is to live in accordance with nature or at least to attempt to. And that’s the way to look at it.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, it’s interesting, the way I teach this is I often talk about an operating system of the mind. What are the rules of engagement that you engage with the world around you and how do you use your mind to interpret the events of your life? And I feel it’s important for all humans to have some way of doing that and I think we’re in a time when many of us don’t.
Traditionally, for humans, we all grew up in small tribes, small communities of people where there was this very clear narrative of how the world works and how we all got here and how events should be interpreted in life. And you existed in a group of people where all of that was very clearly spelled out. And I feel that having that clear narrative in your head, that operating system, allows people to go through life without experiencing so much anxiety and having more clarity about how to interpret maybe trials and tribulations of their life.
And the way I see Stoicism is really just as a Buddhism, as an operating system of the mind to allow people to understand how to interpret events of their life in the course of their life, in a meaningful way, in a way that doesn’t cause terrible stress and so on. But do you have any general thoughts on that, Stoicism as an operating system?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. Quickly on the tribe thing, that’s so true because we’re supposed to biologically be in a tribe of, what do they say, like 150 people. So living in these metropolises with one million people is just completely, the body just doesn’t understand what that is.
So yeah, I think Stoicism as an operating system is a great way to look at it. And I really don’t like to over-complicate it because I’m not and you’re not and other people listening to this aren’t trying to become philosophers in academics. We just want to get the practical aspect from the Stoicism and then use it in our lives.
How the “Dichotomy of control” can be applied to your life
So I think one of the best ways to think about how you can apply it to your life is to look at something called the dichotomy of control, which is something Epictetus coined. And basically, that’s just asking yourself and understanding what’s within your control and what’s out of your control.
So I think in regards to stress and anxiety, that’s probably one of the best things you can ask yourself. In a situation where you’re becoming overwhelmed or becoming stresses, just asking yourself the question what can I control right now can bring a lot of clarity to your mind. Because once you realize something is out of your control then thinking about it and overthinking it and overstressing it just becomes a fleeting strategy because there’s nothing you can get out of that worthwhile. All you should be doing is just focusing on what’s in front of you and what is within your control. So I think that’s a key aspect that is really simple and is really applicable to every single person’s life. What can I control?
Ari Whitten: Yeah, 100%. And my understanding is that’s pretty much the most important distinction within all of Stoicism is learning to differentiate between what is within your control and what is not. And I’m glad you brought up anxiety because I think this relates to that very clearly. And having this operating system that allows you to distinguish between what is in your control and what is not, which I should add is a skill that needs to be cultivated. It’s not something that we all just do automatically.
This skill to distinguish between those two, for me in my own personal life, has really made a big difference in terms of anxiety, in terms of just that conscious practice of is this in my control, is it not? If it’s not then I need to relax, let it be. And then whatever is in my control, that’s where I need to focus my efforts on doing all that I can there.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yeah, I think stress and anxiety specifically though, they’re really interesting things because I don’t think they’re ever caused by one thing. I think obviously your mindset can play a huge role and whether you’re overthinking things, but there are so many aspects to it.
For example, your gut bacteria can have an influence on how stressed you are and anxiety and depression and all these things. So it’s pretty fascinating how that happens. But I do think that that alone and just thinking about what you can and can’t control can make a huge, huge difference in your life if you practice it. And like you said, it’s like a muscle that needs to be worked over and over and over again. And you’ll find that over time, the more you work at it, the stronger you get, the better you are at doing it. So definitely, that’s made a big difference in my life as well.
How discomfort can make you stronger
Ari Whitten: Cool. So I want to get into this idea of resilience, resilience in the face of stress. And I think Stoicism and your book in particular, “The Stoic Body”, has a lot to say about resilience and becoming more resilient in the face of stress. And I think there are some practical tools that come out of Stoic philosophy that we can talk about and there are also a lot of different methods that are now validated by modern science that relate to this.
But in terms of resilience and this idea of the Stoic body, the equanimical body, and I think it almost is synonymous with resilience this idea of Stoicism, what do you take from Stoicism as practical tools that we can use in our daily lives to enhance resilience?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Good question. So I think that in the modern world we’re far, far, far too comfortable. You look at countries like New Zealand, the US, Canada, all these countries which are really affluent, right? The average person has a much better life than many other places in the world, a much better life than people 50, 60 years ago, but yet things like depression and obesity, which I personally think is closely tied to depression, all these things keep going up and up and up and up and up. And I think that comfort that we have in these modern societies where people have money, where people are living good lives, is a curse in disguise.
Having everything available to you, having a fridge next to you available to you, having the store with all this candy and cigarettes and all these pleasures that you can just seek out whenever you want, that’s a really, really bad thing because because all these pleasures are accessible to you in such an easy way, you’re not forced to confront the things that you’re supposed to be dealing with, all these hardships. And you don’t have to confront them because you can escape to all these pleasures.
And no one’s going to tell you off, for doing that. Nobody is going to get angry at you for going to your fridge and, I don’t know, eating some junk food to get rid of a feeling of stress or anxiety.
So my point is that through certain exercises and practices, which we’ll get into in a second but one example could be fasting, through these practices we can force discomfort and voluntary discomfort on ourselves in order to make ourselves more resilient and escape the problems and the hedonistic paradigm many of us live in when we have so many pleasures accessible to us. So intentionally going towards discomfort through things like fasting, cold showers. Exercise is another example. All these different things I think are a great way to build resilience like you were saying. And what better way to do that than through practices which will also help with one of our biggest epidemics, which is obesity?
Ari Whitten: Yeah, and you glossed over something there that I think is really important to elaborate on which is this idea of voluntary discomfort. We used to live in an age where discomfort was built into our lives, whether we liked it or not. There were layers of discomfort there. And we’ll get into the science here in a second around why these things matter. But now we live in an age where we’re an anti-discomfort situation where everything is so readily available to us that we don’t have to deal with the stresses that we once did.
And now, as a result of that, we’re paying the price in terms of our metabolic function is now hindered and harmed by virtue of lack of discomfort. So we’re in a situation now where, in order to allow our biology function well, we have to voluntarily subject ourselves to discomfort. And I think there’s also a biological aspect to this as well as a psychological aspect to this, two layers to this voluntary discomfort. So let’s dig in, a little bit more, to maybe some of the biologic effects, cellular effects of voluntary discomfort and different types of voluntary discomfort.
How fasting can improve your health
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. Well, I think the best voluntary discomforts are going against our strongest biological urges. Because I think if one can voluntarily force discomfort on themselves with these primal urges, then that’s really going to bring the most benefit. So one example is going to be food. The other one is sex, but we’ll talk about food.
So, food especially, like I said, it’s so accessible to us. So making that decision to purposely abstain from food and just fast for a few hours can have profound impacts on your discipline and willpower. But the amazing thing is that fasting has some profound physiological changes. One example is just going to be weight loss. You’re eating less food so it’s going to be great for weight loss. And that’s self-explanatory. But there are some other benefits which people don’t really talk about as much.
One example being something called brain drive neurotrophic factor. So, when you fast, BDNF will increase and basically that gives rise to new brain cells, right? Neurogenesis. So by fasting and by experiencing a discomfort purposely, you’re able to do things like grow new brain cells, which is just pretty profound, right? And there were people like Pythagoras, you probably remember Pythagoras from high school, right? And he would have some of his pupils and students that he was taking on and he would require them to fast for a certain amount of time before he brought them on as a student or something like that, which is quite interesting. So yeah, I think fasting is one of the best ones you can do and it’s one that’s really had some big impacts on my personal life.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, and you mention that there’s a little bit of crossover between the biological effects and the psychological effects, that it’s affecting both layers.
Phillip Ghezelbash: 100%, yeah.
Ari Whitten: We can talk about BDNF and effects on immune function and NAD and NADH and stem cells and all these different biological layers. But you also mentioned willpower and I think motivation.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Willpower 100%. I think that you’ll find, and if you’ve ever experimented with fasting before, it’s different for everybody, but if you fast you’re going to be more productive during the day. And that can come down to a lot of reasons but I think the main reason is that when you … It’s just like the example of making your bed in the morning. People say once you make your bed you’re going to have a more productive day because you’re more likely to continuously do the things that you’re supposed to do.
So with fasting, when you make that decision and when you exert that willpower, you’re able to make decisions for the rest of the day that isn’t based as much on short-term gratification. Now you can fast in the morning or at night, but I think especially when it’s done in the morning you’re telling yourself first thing in the morning that, “No. Short-term gratification is not what I’m doing today. I’m going over the things which are going to give me more long-term rewards.”
So I think that willpower and discipline are the biggest benefits of fasting in terms of the psychology behind it. And it seeps over to every single other area of your life. You find you get more productive, you get more workouts in, everything gets better.
Ari Whitten: Yeah.
The differences between good and bad stressors
Phillip Ghezelbash: But I don’t think it’s for everyone necessarily. I think we’re all different. But I think for a lot of people they can benefit from it. It’s a paradox. When you fast, especially when you go over 18 or 19 hours, things like your cortisol are going to go up because fasting is a stressor on the body. So it’s stressful. But it’s more of a good stress because it’s later compensated by all the benefits you get. So not all stressors are made the same so that’s something to think about.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Well, let’s dig into that a bit more. What differentiates let’s say fasting or another good stressor like exercise versus let’s say heavy metal exposure or something that you might classify as a bad stressor? What are the key factors that distinguish those?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Well I think it’s just good for you. It’s just good for you so that’s one distinction there. And it’s within your control, it’s something you’re choosing to do. It’s something which the body is supposed to be doing. Because I think that the body requires a certain amount of stress. It’s just like you can’t be happy without experiencing sadness, right? You wouldn’t want to magically have a spell cast on you where you could always be happy because how could appreciate what happiness is without experiencing the opposite of that? So I think it’s the same for comfort and discomfort, right? You have to experience some discomfort in order to experience true comfort. And our modern world is escaping that and moving away from that. Because our body wants to eat as much as possible. We’re programmed to find the most energy dense foods in order to survive, put on fat and then procreate and increase our chances to bring on successive generations of offspring.
So I think it’s just about, yeah, following what our bodies are designed for and escaping comfort. And I think that brings forth good things regardless of it being a stressor on the body.
Ari Whitten: Nice. So what else, as far as voluntary discomforts, what other kinds of things can people engage in that have benefit? So fasting and what else [crosstalk]?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. Cold therapy is another example. So you just taking a cold shower, that can make a big difference. And there are a lot of physiological reasons for that. One example could be immunity. It seems to help with immunity. You may have heard of that Dutch madman, Wim Hof, who goes into some really cold temperatures. So the immune system really benefits from cold exposure. It also helps with BDNF, with brain drive neurotrophic factor. So it seems like many of these hormetic voluntary stressors improve the brain’s ability to grow new brain cells, which is pretty cool.
And another example could be abstinence from sex, like pornography for example. There’s a huge problem today, especially for younger generations which grew up with the internet. So that’s yet another example, just like food, of a very evolutionary driven pleasure and comfort which when you can abstain from that you can receive a lot of benefits. And we see that was advocated for in the past and in the present with many religions and many philosophies.
I think the Taoists were one which had a formula using your age or something like that to figure out how many days per week you should abstain from sex, which is pretty random. But they believed that when you abstain for a certain amount of time that increases your longevity and all these things. And again, the science isn’t really that conclusive on that. But I think those sorts of things, temperature, sex, food. I’m not really sure in terms of the social aspect of life, whether abstaining from socializing would have any sort of benefit. I haven’t really explored that. But perhaps that’s different.
Ari Whitten: Probably not for somebody who’s already inclined towards introversion and has a little anxiety. Maybe the opposite might be a hormetic stress like forcing yourself to get out and socialize.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Exactly. I think that’s subjective to the individual’s personality. But I think in terms of the body it’s basically what you don’t want to do. Instead of being warm and comfortable, it’s cold. Instead of satiating yourself with tasty food, you fast. Instead of having sex all the time, you don’t. And I think it’s just doing the opposite of what your primal urges desire from you. So you can apply that to different instances throughout your day and have many voluntary discomforts.
How rehearsing poverty can increase stress tolerance
Ari Whitten: Yeah. There’s one other one you mentioned in the book called rehearsing poverty.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Right, right.
Ari Whitten: What is that entail? And I know it overlaps with some of the things that you’ve mentioned already, but I like this idea of rehearsing poverty. And maybe for especially some of the more wealthy listeners to this podcast, this might seem like a very strange idea to rehearse poverty. But can you describe a bit more about what that’s all about?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Well I think that regardless of whether you’re wealthy or not, listening to this, we’re all wealthy compared to the past. We all live the lives that a king or queen would except for maybe the social aspect of that. But in terms of the food, we have accessible to us, we’re all kings and queens. It was only the kings and queens that got fat and glutenous in the past. So I think rehearsing poverty first came from Seneca, who was a Stoic. And he talked about rehearsing poverty in a pretty cool quote. I don’t know it off by heart but basically, the idea was to not get sucked into the lifestyle you currently have and to remember what it’s like to or to appreciate being poorer. That brings gratitude to your life because you might take all the things around you for granted.
So regardless of all the physiological benefits of fasting, for example, just in terms of gratefulness it can have a huge impact on you by rehearsing poverty, by eating really plain foods or maybe even dressing in a really plain manner. You recalibrate your mind to remember that your happiness isn’t contingent on external things like the type of food you have or the quality of the food you have or the type of clothes you have, and rather to gain happiness and equanimity through your internal self. So if you’ve lived your life in a very wealthy way and you’ve always had access to all these things, all these external things, then by resisting them for a while you voluntarily rehearse poverty and increase your gratefulness. And I think that’s huge and it’s not applicable to people who are just wealthy. Everybody is wealthy, right?
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Beautiful explanation. So one thing I’ll add to that is that our brains seem to be wired to normalize to a certain level of let’s say comfort or financial success and that maybe when we initially achieve it, it creates this high and happiness and life satisfaction for a period of time, but then we tend to go back to whatever our baseline is. And so I think these voluntary discomforts are a way of recalibrating the baseline. Let’s say if somebody sleeps in a nice house and in a nice bed and it’s climate controlled, something as simple as going on a camping trip and being outdoors in the cold and the heat and carrying a heavy pack and doing physical labor and sleeping on the ground in a tent, all of those things then become a form of voluntary discomfort or rehearsing poverty that recalibrates that system and allows you, like you said, to be more grateful for the level of comfort that you do have normally.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yeah, totally agree. It’s quite strange. When you abstain from these pleasures like fasting or whether you rehearse poverty in a certain way, you go camping or whatever, those are the moments in life where you truly feel alive. You don’t truly feel alive when you’re just going throughout your monotonous pleasure-seeking life and you’re just going from pleasure to pleasure to pleasure. When you fast, the longer you fast … For example, I’ve done a prolonged fast.
So you fast for upward to 48, 72, 100 hours. And in those moments where you have distanced yourself from this external pleasure, you find that you get so much pleasure from within yourself and you truly feel alive. It’s quite like a natural euphoric high. And it’s strange that it’s like that. But yeah, definitely, definitely agree with that, rehearsing poverty is super important. And we become desensitized to whatever we achieve like you’re saying.
The cutoff point for money
There’s a cutoff point for money. I think if I remember correctly it’s like $70,000 per year. Up to $70,000 your happiness does actually increase just because of less stress from constantly getting emails about the money you have to pay, but once you reach a certain point more money doesn’t really do anything for you.
Because when it comes down to it, fundamentally your happiness isn’t determined by these external things. Your happiness, in essence, is a game of neurotransmitter balance. That’s fundamentally what’s going to determine how you’re feeling on a day to day basis. So by doing these things, by intentionally following voluntary discomforts and rehearsing poverty in all these different ways, all these different hormetic stressors, I think you can recalibrate your brain to work closer to what it should be.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, beautiful. And there’s a concept that you talk about in the book that’s related to all of this and I think it’s really important to add here, which is, and I’m not sure if I’m going to pronounce this correctly. I think it’s a Greek word. It’s akrasia and it’s this idea of, I think you also called it hyperbolic discounting, of this idea of we, overestimate the pleasure that we can derive from maybe small, momentary pleasures that are instantaneous that you can get right now as compared to maybe much larger, much more meaningful pleasures that take a long time to develop.
How delaying gratification can increase chances of success
And I think that concept is very much related to this voluntary discomfort because I think our brains are wired to go, “Ooh, ice cream, I want that pleasure.” Not, “Ooh, cold shower, I want to jump in a cold shower right now.”, right?
So this is a conditioning process to even get your brain wrapped around the idea of regularly engaging in voluntary discomfort.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yeah. I think that throughout the day, at least for me, I don’t know if this is anecdotal, but there’s a constant negotiation with pleasure. I called in the book I think the conversation with pleasure. And it seems a bit strange and if you haven’t experimented with these voluntary discomforts then you might not resonate with this as much but I think it’s really important to become self-aware about what the decisions you’re making are doing to your mind.
In terms of hyperbolic discounting, I think, that first came into light through economics. So people would take $100 right now instead of $200 in a year’s time or something like that. And there was a study which I didn’t actually use in the book but it was quite an interesting one. I came across it in the book “The One Thing” a few weeks ago and it was called the Marshmallow Test. It was with some kids.
They put some kids in a room and there were some marshmallows in front of them or some other sorts of sweets and they told them that if they don’t eat the sweet in the 15 minutes they’re in the room they’ll get a special treat plus the marshmallows. And I think it was like 7 out of 10 kids ate the sweet without waiting the 15 minutes. And the fascinating thing was that years and years and years and a year later they looked at those kids and their successes and life and the kids which were able to resist the temptation and wait for the delayed gratification, they were much more successful in terms of their happiness their monetary success. And I think that was pretty fascinating.
So I think there are some people in the world which are born into that mindset of seeking out pleasure more than others. I know I was like that as a teenager for example. I’d eat a lot of junk food. I was playing a lot of computer games. That was a big problem for me.
So I think for the people that are naturally very pleasure seeking, being able to voluntarily train yourself for these discomforts can have huge impacts on your life. So yeah, definitely an interesting topic.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, very interesting. And I want to actually go back to that. I don’t know if it’s entirely genetic or that it’s people who are born that way. I think there might be a lot of early conditioning in people’s lives, maybe from their parents educating them from the time that they’re one through 12, through 15, through 18, just teaching than that.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure.
Ari Whitten: Because my intuition around this is that the human brain is fundamentally wired towards short-term gratification. And I think it’s very much a skill that needs to be cultivated to develop that ability to say I’m going to intentionally, consciously deprive myself of this momentary pleasure, like let’s say having this pizza or this ice cream or this cookie, in order to get some gratification that is much less immediate and much harder to actually visualize, which is being healthy and being energetic and having good body composition and these much more vague and nebulous ideas as compared to this instant momentary pleasure of consuming this pizza and ice cream.
How the journey towards your goal can give you pleasure
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yeah, I think if we take an example of let’s say a hunter and they’re going after food. Their true pleasure isn’t actually when they’re eating the food. Their true pleasure is the journey and the experience of going after that food and chasing it for hours and hours and hours and hours. And then you’re satisfied and satiated once you achieve that.
Just like somebody who’s writing a book, for example, the true pleasure, whether you believe it or not in the moment, is actually the journey of writing the book. And that’s why people will find when they finished a huge project or they finished their exams, for example, at school, after that they don’t know what to do with their lives, right? They’re so confused because they were on this journey. That journey is equated with true pleasure and in modern society, we’re shortening that journey more and more and more.
The easiest example that I can think of right now is, takeaway, delivery to your house. So before in the past, we were hunting, then you were cooking your food, then you were walking to McDonald’s, now McDonald’s is bringing the food to you, right? So that journey is slowly, slowly, slowly shortening and shortening and shortening and the smaller that journey gets less true pleasure people get, the more satisfaction they get and the more degeneration they get for their bodies and minds.
Ari Whitten: Yeah.
Phillip Ghezelbash: I think that example itself is much worse than people think and I think that that’s doing a lot of harm. And I think that mindset alone of voluntary discomfort could have huge implications for saving us from obesity and depressive lifestyles. And I think that’s much more important to push rather than vegetables are good and junk food is bad. Because you tell a smoker that cigarettes are bad for them and that they cause lung cancer and they keep smoking. That’s how human beings are wired. So yeah, I think that’s getting to the cause much more than what’s good and bad.
Ari Whitten: Yeah, very insightful. And I think all of this is very much intertwined with resilience and tolerance to stress, not only on a biological level but a psychological level in a few different ways. But one being just that when you engage in these voluntary discomforts, even if we talk about these things on the biological level like the effects of cold on our system or heat or fasting, there is also, as the name implies, discomfort.
It is psychologically uncomfortable and it is psychologically essentially a kind of stress to deal with the discomfort of hunger pangs or the discomfort of cold. These are very much stressors, psychologically. This is something I’ve looked into the research very extensively and I really wish that there was more research on this. But my hunch is, and what my book is going to be all about, is really that these voluntary discomforts arm us biologically and psychologically to handle stress better. And the fact that we live in this world today, the modern world that lacks all of these forms of discomfort, I think has fragilized us biologically and psychologically such that we cannot deal with stress nearly as well as we should be able to deal with it. But do you have any general thoughts on that?
How you can implement voluntary discomfort and increase stress tolerance, today
Phillip Ghezelbash: Definitely. I completely agree. I can’t wait for your book. I’m sure it’s going to be really interesting. I think another thing is people might be listening to this and they might resonate with this and they might accept what we’re saying and saying, “That’s completely true. I completely agree but how do I implement that in my life?”
And I think the best thing to do instead of starting fasting, cold showers, all these things, I think the best thing you can do is pick one, right? And pick one pleasure that you can abstain from and practice and train yourself with every single day. Just like somebody who’s going to choose one form of exercise to really focus on, just as an example.
If you can choose fasting or if you can choose meditation, you can choose one of these sorts of discomforts and you can focus on it every single day, then that’s so much better I think, than focusing on every single different one because I explain this in the book, I think pleasures are like languages. Meditation, fasting, sex, all these things, they’re all pleasures and discomforts and they’re like languages because they’re the same thing in essence but they’re different. But once you begin to learn one you can begin to understand the other.
So that’s hard to explain but think about it like this: You take somebody who has never exercised before, they’re obese, you put them on a good exercise program. They learn to manage their dependencies and the pleasures with food and then you find that they also stop smoking. They also stop gambling. They also stop all these things and it’s because pleasures are all interconnected. And once your brain subconsciously understands that short-term gratification isn’t actually bringing you anything worthwhile, then for every other aspect in your life where you recognize a pleasure then it’s difficult to follow that short-term gratification and justify it. Yeah, I think that’s important. And I think if you’re looking for one, to begin with, I would say just out of anecdotal experience and what I’ve seen, fasting and meditation are two really good ones.
Ari Whitten: You said a few things there that I want to dig into, deeper.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure.
Ari Whitten: But it’s interesting that you’re classifying meditation as it sounds like one of the voluntary discomforts.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure.
Ari Whitten: Okay. Why is that?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Well because looking at your phone and watching Family Guy or watching whatever kind of show on TV that you like, that’s a comfort for you. And the opposite of that is sitting down and not listening to any music, not watching any TV, not being stimulated by anything external. Just like fasting is abstaining from the external pleasure of food, meditation is the discomfort of the abstinence of something that’s stimulating you mentally, whether it be music, TV show, whatever.
Ari Whitten: That’s a nice distinction. I like that.
Phillip Ghezelbash: So that’s why I see meditation as a discomfort, yeah.
Ari Whitten: Very nice. Yeah, I like that distinction. I haven’t heard that before. So you also said something there that I think may confuse some people because they may not have heard this before, which is you almost talked about pleasure and pain as being intertwined. And most people would not intuitively think of those as being intertwined in that way. One thing that came to mind as you were talking was that for people who are overweight trying to lose weight, they may go on a diet and adopt healthier eating habits. Let’s say get rid of some of the processed foods, eat more whole foods or do a calorie-restricted diet or something to that effect or get rid of certain food groups and maybe start exercising. And initially, almost universally those habit changes will feel quite painful and annoying and really unpleasant for most people.
And yet, we also know that if we look at a longer timeline it is possible for people to learn to love exercising and love eating healthy. And I’m sure for both you and I, being health nuts, we’re probably both on that same wavelength where we actually now enjoy eating healthy more than the momentary pleasures of eating pizza or ice cream or potato chips or something like that and enjoy working out more than not working out. You know what I mean? So it’s interesting this intertwining of pleasure and pain. And I know that you went into it in the book but I’d love if you could talk a bit more about that.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Sure. Yeah, it’s weird how it’s like that. And somebody who is obese, for example, may be really, really perplexed at why somebody to get up at 6:00 AM and run for five miles or whatever it be. So that’s definitely something. There’s like a rewiring in the brain that occurs.
For example, the [inaudible] for me now in doing some yoga and meditation and working on some pull-ups or something like that, that’s a reward for me. It’s not really a pain anymore. I try to leave it for later in the day so that I can reward myself with a workout and meditation because I enjoy it so much. I think over time as you subconsciously realize that that short-term gratification doesn’t bring you any pleasure, you start to realize that the true pleasure is brought through doing things which are going to bring you true satisfaction. And over time as you develop those habits more they align you closer to long-term gratification, then naturally that’s going to become the pleasure. So I completely agree with you with that.
How negative visualization works
Ari Whitten: Yeah, beautifully stated. There’s another aspect of Stoicism called negative visualization, another kind of tool or strategy of Stoicism that is designed to affect the mind in a certain way. And I think it relates to this whole concept, this whole discussion around resilience and becoming less fragile in the face of stress. So can you talk a bit about negative visualization and what that’s all about? Because it’s I think another one of these counterintuitive concepts.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Well you’ll see with many of the genres and books and works in health, fitness, self-help, personal development, all these things, they all advocate for be very optimistic, be very positive. And that’s great, don’t get me wrong. But I think there’s also room for intentional negativity. Now what I mean by that is the Stoics, for example, they would meditate on things like losses, losing assets, losing limbs, and that might seem a bit extreme. So the way I interpret that is to increase your gratefulness. So, for example, let’s say I’m sitting here and I’m feeling like, “Oh, I don’t want to do anything today. I don’t want to exercise.”, whatever.
And then you would meditate on the fact that it’s a realistic possibility, although not very likely, that you may lose your limbs, you may die, you may lose family members. And that actually happens to a lot of people. In the real world that happens. So meditating on the possibility of that happening will increase your ability to be grateful for what you have in front of you right now. Because I think much of our stress and anxieties and things like this just comes from not being grateful for the things we have in front of us.
We find that someone might be like, “Oh, I don’t have the iPhone 7 and I have the iPhone 6. And I really want the iPhone 7.” Meditating on the fact that your phone, for example, could fall on the ground and you wouldn’t be able to get a new one will make you appreciate the iPhone 6 more. That’s just one example. And you could do the same for being able to run and walk and apply that to losing your legs or doing that with family members and all these things. So that’s basically the premise of negative visualization, meditating on the negative in order to appreciate what you currently have.
Ari Whitten: So yeah, I love what you said. I think there’s another aspect to this which is it’s almost like another form of psychological hormesis.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Yep.
Ari Whitten: It’s like you’re intentionally exposing yourself to this momentary stressor of thinking about something that’s really unpleasant. So you’re actually causing yourself stress in the moment, but it’s helping to arm you against stress in the future.
Phillip Ghezelbash: And there’s a fine line between voluntary stress and masochism. That’s something that needs to be distinguished there. But definitely, I think that the more we can expose ourselves to these discomforts, the more we’re going to be rewarded. So I think the really cool mindset to go into the day with is which aspects of my life can I find today where I can apply a discomfort and delay my gratification for that? And people will think about this, people who haven’t done it before, and think, “What’s the point in that?” And my answer to that is just try it out because you’ll see that when you do things like fasting, when you do things like negative visualizations and you look back on your day you’re going to think to yourself, “Okay, that day was much better than the day before where I was complaining or I was stuffing my face, where I was on my phone all the time.”
So a really good way to see that in a practical way and see how that manifests in your life is to adopt a practice of journaling. And you don’t have to do this. I don’t always do it, but having a journal and recording down what you do for the day and then rate your day in terms of satisfaction, pleasure, stress and all these things and then finding what sort of practices aligned with certain levels of pleasure and satisfaction. Over time you can start to see what’s causing stress and problems in your life and you can analyze it like a graph and tweak it for the future. So I think that’s a good way.
Phillip’s 3 ways to increase stress tolerance
Ari Whitten: Yeah, very cool. So this has been a super fun conversation. I’ve loved geeking out with you on this kind of stuff and I feel like we could talk about all this all day. But let’s synthesize a lot of this as we’ve covered a lot. And I would love if you could give people let’s say your top three practical takeaways of maybe things that they could apply in their life and taking from this conversation that we’ve had to maybe improve their resilience or reset their… rewire their happiness set point.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Okay. Well, I’ll tailor this towards two sorts of people and they’ll probably overlap. Firstly, for the people that are watching who might be slightly overweight and want to take control of their health, the first one I’d recommend is going to be fasting. And how I would begin this is by trying out something called … Well, there’s no name for it. Just fast for two days a week and just eat between 12:00 PM and 8:00 PM for two days out of the week, let’s say Tuesday and Friday. And just try that. And just eat what you would usually eat. Obviously, try to eat healthily but just for two days a week try that in order to expose yourself to the discomfort of not eating and increase your gratefulness. But what you’ll find is it’s probably not as difficult as you think it is.
And don’t worry about things like dogmatic myths like fasting will slow down your metabolism and you need to eat frequent meals to keep your metabolism up. That’s not true at all so just try it two days of the week where you fast for a bit and see how your body reacts. And if that goes well for you, try to increase it over time and you’ll find that your mind and your body slowly starts to change. So fasting is definitely one I recommend.
The other would be meditation. Now you don’t have to become a Buddhist monk and move to a monastery in China or whatever to get the benefits out of this. All I want you to do is just spend 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes per day, sit down with yourself, maybe put on some relaxing music or something, and then just focus on breathing really slowly through your nose and really slowly out of your nose. And just continuously practice that for 5, 10, 15 minutes. Listen to the sound of your breath and just practice doing that 5, 10, 15 minutes a day. And if you actually do this, your brain will change over time. We know now that the brain is plastic, right? In the past, we thought that the brain was completely static and it couldn’t be changed. But with the practice of mindfulness, you can reduce the size of things like your amygdala in your brain responsible for fear. You can increase the amount of brain matter and connectivity between the left and the right hemisphere. So these sorts of discomforts will really change your body and your mind. So meditation and fasting are the two I definitely recommend you get started with.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. And was that for one particular type of person?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Oh, right, right, right. So meditation is more for the neurotic person. Fasting is going to be better for the obese person. But since both of these tie in with each other, I definitely recommend adopting two. But start with one, to begin with, based on what your biggest issue and problem is at the current moment.
Ari Whitten: Beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Philip. This has been an absolute pleasure. And I highly recommend everyone listening, go grab yourself a copy of “The Stoic Body” if you found this conversation interesting, you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism, resilience and voluntary discomfort. And there are a whole bunch more topics covered in the book. I highly, highly recommend checking that out. And where can people find more of your work Philip?
Phillip Ghezelbash: Right, so basically what I do is I make YouTube videos. That’s my main gig right now. So you can just go to YouTube.com/PhilipGhezelbash, P-H-I-L-I-P-G-H-E-Z-E-L-B-A-S-H. And you can find me there. I upload videos daily on health, fitness, nutrition, the brain, all these sorts of things. So that’s where you can find my content. And that’s it.
Thanks for having me on. It was great to talk. These are really interesting topics that I think need to be discussed more often. And I’m keen to read your book when it comes out. Definitely, let me know.
Ari Whitten: Yeah. Thanks, my friend. Yeah, really a pleasure connecting with you and thanks so much for the fun conversation.
Phillip Ghezelbash: Cool man.
How to Use “Good Stress” to Make Yourself More Resilient and Increase Stress Tolerance – Show Notes
The definition of stoicism (3:00)
How stoics lives in accordance with nature (5:26)
How the dichotomy of control can be applied to your life (9:47)
How discomfort can make you stronger (12:26)
How fasting can improve your health (17:08)
The differences between good and bad stressors (21:17)
How rehearsing poverty can increase stress tolerance (25:12)
The cutoff point for money (29:34)
How delaying gratification can increase stress tolerance (31:08)
How the journey toward your goal can give you pleasure (34:50)
How you can implement voluntary discomfort and increase stress tolerance, today (38:28)
How negative visualization works (44:08)
Phillip’s 3 ways to increase stress tolerance (48:25)
To learn more about what Phillip teaches, go check out his youtube channel.