Stepping Into Challenges and Discomfort with Real World Toughness

(Evidence in Action)

Catalyst - Health, Wellness & Performance Podcast

Full Transcript

Ice baths, 4 AM wake-up calls, fasts and more are garnering big-time attention on social media and elsewhere as paths to mental toughness, personal success and more. Beyond the 15 minutes of fame garnered by the post, is there any legitimate science behind these and other less dramatic ways to step into and through discomfort? And why, in the midst of the growing popularity of these strategies, do most of us often find it difficult – not to step into an ice bath – but to simply get off the couch and get moving?

What does the science – the evidence – tell us? Is an ability to do hard things due to genetics? Habit? A combination of the two? Are there ways to enhance our ability to step into challenges with purpose? Or are we just stuck with the way we are, with no practical ways in which to enhance our skillset in this realm? In this episode, we’ll dig into these questions and more as we explore the part of the brain that appears to play a significant role in the process of moving outside our veritable comfort zones, and why it’s so important to both our current and future lives.

I’m your host, Dr. Brad Cooper, CEO of Catalyst Coaching 360. When we started this podcast almost 350 episode ago, our goal was to provide our listeners a resource to move beyond the fads and the headlines and tap into what the EVIDENCE tells us about living life to the fullest and helping our clients, coworkers and friends do the same. This new feature – “Evidence In Action” – marks an important new resource in doing exactly that, as we’ll be regularly digging into the latest evidence on a popular subject that may or may not have any real substance. We’ll be summarizing key elements of the latest research on the subject and what it means on a PRACTICAL level to you, your clients and your team members. We’ll focus our time on critical highlights and real-world application. We’ll then provide links to the studies reviewed in the description of the podcast for those of you who would like to take a deeper dive.

Speaking of deeper dives, if you’re looking to earn your NBHWC-approved coaching certification, the next cohort group kicks off soon, so you may want to check into those details. If you’re already a coach, Catalyst is launching a pair of exciting new sub-specialty certifications this month addressing sleep and practical mental toughness skills – to both enhance your coaching and help differentiate you from other coaches. All the details available on our institute site – or reach out anytime with questions about any of these options and we can set up some time to discuss:

Now let’s dig into the Evidence In Action related to our comfort zones, the brain’s mechanisms, and what it means on a practical level for each of us going forward.

The anterior midcingulate cortex region of the brain – or aMCC, has garnered attention over the past decade + as somewhat of an epicenter for tenacity, or the willingness to move into and through a challenging situation or activity. The aMCC becomes more engaged or activated when we step into difficult tasks. Those “difficult tasks” don’t have to be physical pursuits. They may include engaging in difficult conversations, staying focused without checking our phones, ignoring donuts in the break room, or any activity that requires increased cognitive control on our part. Over time, it appears engaging in challenging tasks that involve this elevated cognitive control leads to adaptations in the brain which then makes it easier to do more of that in the future – similar to the way in which strengthening a muscle makes various activities easier.

Now just to clarify, there are plenty of unhealthy challenges. That is not – and should not be – the goal or target. For the purposes of today, any reference to selectively choosing discomfort over comfort is about choices that are neither psychologically nor physiologically damaging. In other words, don’t be an idiot. As we’ll discuss, there are plenty of ways in which we can strengthen this area of the brain that are healthy or at least health neutral. I’ll provide you with some potential options during the Implementation Ideas section toward the end of this episode.

Let’s start with a series of 7 key highlights about the Anterior Midcingulate Cortex, several of which stem from a research review article titled The Tenacious Brain from the journal Cortex. We’ll link to that article and other resources I consulted in the podcast description accompanying this episode.

  1. The primary goal of the aMCC is efficient energy regulation – balancing effort and reward. It modulates our physiological response, including blood pressure, hormone levels, heart rate and more. The body’s first priority is survival – not expanding our impact or achieving long-term goals. It is driven to survive. And before we had calorie-dense food available 24/7 around every turn, that meant minimizing expenditure of energy unless the action chosen provided a very high reward payoff. The lack of available energy supplies is obviously no longer an issue, but the brain continues to act on that premise. As a result, the aMCC is constantly scanning for the “easiest available path.” When we choose otherwise, it says “hold on there – we need to talk about this!” – and it lights up.
  2. The brain is a predictive machine, using our past history as its primary guide. As we override this “easy path” algorithm and step into uncertain challenges and discomfort more frequently and across a broader range of settings and situations, our predictions begin to shift.
    a. Think of the first time you join a new group. You don’t know anyone, you’ve never been there before, you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Then, over time as you return to that group setting, get to know various people, and become familiar with the routine, your predictions shift. Less uncertainty equals enhanced accuracy of our predictions. The discomfort – and thus the required effort initially felt diminishes over time and our predictions adjust.
  3. There are two sides to the aMCC’s predictive modeling. On one hand it predicts the cognitive and physical cost of every possible action while ALSO simultaneously predicting the rewards associated with those actions. That’s where our opportunity presides. The unknown is weighted more heavily in terms of energy expenditure and at the same time, potential rewards are generally downplayed. However, as we DO step into challenges and discomfort and reap various rewards, the aMCC begins to see that overweighting as “prediction error” (ohh – that was worthwhile afterall!) and adjusts its calculation used in similar future situations.
    a. Here’s one from my own life recently: There’s an evening track group here in town but I’d never joined them for a winter session because my aMCC always said “no way!”, highlighting the cold & dark, & the need for a headlamp vs. the MUCH easier, low-energy expending alternative option of a cozy evening on the couch. Even when I made a decision to go, it was a battle to change course right up to the point of stepping out of my Jeep to join the group. However, once I DID get my butt out there and provided my aMCC algorithm a dose of reality to include, its predictions about both energy cost and rewards shifted dramatically. It now had REAL data vs. predictive data.
  4. In terms of these predictions, our prediction of effort and reward vary by individual and within individuals over time. We previously had Dr. Dennis Proffit, author of Perception on the podcast and he discussed the intriguing research showing fit individuals -in this case, female college soccer players – perceive distance and slope differently from less fit individuals. The soccer players’ aMCC interpret the distance as being shorter and the incline of the hill easier based on prior experiences. Let me say that in a different way: A mile looks shorter to a female college soccer player than an Instagram-obsessed student. We have the power to change our predictive mechanism related to cognitive and physical effort related to future pursuits through the choices we make today.
  5. Microimaging studies have added a new twist to the evidence. They appear to show increased activity of the aMCC – meaning making regular choices to step into challenging or uncomfortable options – may account for higher levels of tenacity and lower levels of apathy when facing other challenges. In addition, this higher aMCC activity during cost-benefit weighing was associated with a willingness to exert more effort AND a greater willingness to take on bigger challenges in the future. So regularly engaging our aMCC not only makes us more willing to step into challenges, we also take on bigger challenges and put forth more effort when doing so!
  6. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s related to the anchoring effect. Our brains anchor to a number or an experience within our internal predictive algorithm to which all future comparisons are made. For example, if you run 3 miles/day, your brain has “anchored” to that number, making a mile – which is a long distance to someone who isn’t running – seem almost like a rest day. We regularly create – and hopefully re-create if we’re curious and growing – anchors covering every conceivable aspect of life. Depending on our approach, these anchors can either provide stability from which we can then further explore the world or it can hold us down, limiting our progress forward.
  7. One other note for those who may be curious about benefits later in life, many of the most pronounced neurobiological differences between superagers – those who maintain their cognitive abilities – and typical older adults involves the structure and function of the aMCC.

A brief comment about Ego Depletion, a theory developed by Social Psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister. The theory suggests that self-control is a finite resource that can become depleted, leading to diminished willpower and reduced ability with subsequent self-control tasks, which is obviously central to our discussion about the aMCC’s role. Maybe you’ve noticed that on a day in which you successfully take on a challenge at work, expand upon a fitness pursuit, or shift a long-standing habit with alcohol, caffeine or afternoon junk food, but then find yourself mindlessly binging Netflix, scrolling social media or grabbing an extra cookie at night. That’s likely related to Ego Depletion. You used all your chips and now are more susceptible to sliding in other areas. This may also be related to some of the high-profile stories we see about incredibly disciplined executives, athletes and others making incredibly awful decisions in their personal lives. Obviously many variables involved, but it could be they’re excessively depleting their self-control in some areas of life and having nothing left in the bank to make the right decision in other areas. Not an excuse, just an interesting possibility. The prolonged or repeated engagement in these self-control tasks may deplete the related neural resources, potentially leading to reduced effectiveness of the aMCC for these individuals – and for us. The lesson here is to use wisdom as we take these steps. Gradual investment, using the Plus One model I’ll mention in a moment, optimizes our likelihood of success over putting everything on a single roll of the dice.

Implementation Ideas
Here are a few practical tips for putting some of these concepts into practice:

  1. Set an alarm on your phone for a specific period of time – perhaps start with 30 minutes and work your way up. Then do not touch your phone for any reason whatsoever – until that alarm sounds.
  2. Exercise. There is evidence that exercise, in addition to all the other benefits it provides, also increases aMCC volume.
  3. Value consistency over drama. Yes – I get that social media has boosted the dopamine response to doing something BIG. But “going big” for the sake of clicks shifts us to an external vs. internal focus and may also create a rebound effect related to the ego depletion concept noted earlier.
  4. Tune into your “comfort magnets.” What times of day, settings, circumstances and people make it more difficult for you to step into the discomfort? Once the awareness is there, actions can be taken to move those magnets or turn your focus to strengthening your resolve in the presence of those magnets.
  5. Monday Multiplier – Kick off your week with a little aMCC exercise: add or subtract something that creates discomfort. Maybe it’s skipping caffeine for the day, using a stand-up desk, doing pushups every 2 hours, completing a task you’ve been putting off, adding a weighted backpack to your walk, talking to one new person in line for coffee, exercising (safely, of course) in the wind, rain or cold, or any other uncomfortable but not damaging pursuit. It doesn’t have to be Mondays, but I’ve found kicking off the week in this way sets up the remainder of the week for success.
  6. Perhaps most importantly, consider the Plus 1 concept I referenced earlier – making gradual changes that activate but don’t overwhelm the aMCC neural connections, thus limiting the risk of ego depletion mentioned earlier.
    • Pick one area of focus and make a small adjustment – a Plus One. This activates the aMCC but then a new, more accurate baseline- or anchor – is formed. This shifts your predictive mechanism and instead of your Plus One being uncomfortable with unknown rewards, it’s simply your new baseline.
    •  Implementing this Plus 1 strategy in one area of life consistently creates massive leverage over time from which you can continue to build across all aspects of your life.
    •  The alternative is the popular “go big or go home” approach. Sure – we can hop off the couch and go for a 20-mile run or double the weight we line up for a max bench press – but we all know how that ends. Going big generally results in going home. The Plus One strategy is the game changer that may not produce clicks, but it certainly produces results!

So back to the question that kicked off today’s discussion: are ice baths, 4 AM alarms and other hard-core pursuits beneficial? Maybe. But so are the multitude of less “dramatic” options we’ve mentioned above. You may not garner as many “clicks” with these alternatives, but you will engage your aMCC and enhance your life in the process, even without the ice.

One other note we’ll expand upon in an upcoming episode examining the strategies of David Goggins – please don’t forget the joy. In today’s world, it’s easy to get into a routine of push, push, and push harder. Yes – there are clear benefits, as we’ve discussed, to stepping into discomfort and challenges. That’s the head element of the head/heart/feet model some of you may recognize from the Catalyst functional mental toughness & resilience specialty certification. But the head is only the beginning. Next comes the heart – tuning into, or sometimes adding, elements of joy to that pursuit. From there, we progress to the feet – automating the process so it no longer requires a withdrawal from the mental toughness bank account and we can our next step forward! However, if we stop with the head – pursuing the discomfort and then remaining in the state of driven discomfort – are we really even living? I think you understand what I’m saying. If this spurred something in you to learn more, you can check out details about the fMTc specialty certification on our institute site at or reach out anytime:

The research will continue to uncover new realities, so don’t put too much emphasis on the aMCC itself, although it is kind of fun to say “anterior midcingulate cortex” among friends every now and then 😊 There have been many times in history when we’ve given far too much credit to a single part of the brain only to make additional discoveries later. However, the practical elements we’ve discussed here related to our lives hold true – and they provide an opportunity that many of us – perhaps most of us, often miss. Now you have an additional tool you can add to your high-performance toolbox.

Thanks for joining us for this special Evidence In Action episode and for being a part of the Catalyst Community. Make it a great rest of your week and I’ll speak w/ you soon on the next episode of the Catalyst 360 podcast or maybe over on the YouTube Coaching Channel.

Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions Are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 5 (1998): 1252–65.
Chen, Ying‐Chun, Yun‐Hsin Huang, and Nai‐Shing Yen. “Role of Anterior Midcingulate Cortex in Representation and Reward Allocation Judgments within Social Context.” Human Brain Mapping 43, no. 7 (May 2022): 2377–90.
Touroutoglou, Alexandra, Joseph Andreano, Bradford C. Dickerson, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. “The Tenacious Brain: How the Anterior Mid-Cingulate Contributes to Achieving Goals.” Cortex 123 (February 2020): 12–29.