Chris Hemsworth and I are basically the same person.
We’re both dads. We’re both entering our forties. With August birthdays a week apart, we’ve both got big Leo energy: heaps of charisma and hubris. We both crashed the exact same race car (then laughed about it later).
And we both snap awake at 2:30am, due to stress and our inability to properly cope.
Hemsworth’s revelation of the latter fact comes within the first 30 seconds of his new Disney+ docuseries Limitless with Chris Hemsworth. And his experience with a runaway brain sounds eerily similar to mine.
“I’ll go to sleep fine, but at 2:30, there’s this shot of adrenaline and my brain will just start going through a checklist of things. Like, ‘Does that bother me? Does that… Oh, that one, yeah good. Let’s think about that. Let’s tear that apart,’” the actor laments.
“Sometimes I don’t even know why. And I wish I could deal with that stress better. Not just because it sucks but because it could be killing me.”
Uh, same, Thor.
However, where Hemsworth and I diverge is in our willingness to confront and conquer stress via extreme methods. Sure, I’ll yap to a shrink for some talk therapy, or peruse self-improvement articles, doing my best to implement any tips or tricks gleaned.
But Hemsworth? My man is down to strut across a crane dangling off a skyscraper that’s 900 feet tall.
To that, me and my crippling fear of heights say hell no. And I feel my own stress levels pique watching the opening minutes of the “Stress-Proof” episode of the National Geographic show.
We see glorious cinematic shots of Hemsworth gingerly scaling the ladder to the crane and plenty of dizzying GoPro shots of the ground, all which keep my cortisol surging.
Why even undertake this? Over a montage of bright, cheery clips of Hemsworth and his family, he says he feels pretty young, most days. But he’s aware of the ticking clock, that things that may shorten his life are already at work within him.
The upside: lifestyle changes can improve his lifespan and healthspan.
We’re recapping our favorite learnings from each Limitless episode, so here are 12 of the most interesting takeaways about stress and stress management.
1 - Chris Hemsworth Is More Stressed Than You
It’s the extreme close-up shots that series executive producer Darren Aronofsky frequently employs that get us right into Hemsworth’s space, physically. But kudos to Hemsworth for being earnest enough to allow us into his headspace.
His admissions surrounding his own stress feel very real, perhaps because they’re absurdly relatable.
“I’ve got three kids,” Hemsworth says, “and I’m trying to work and train for future projects and on the weekends I feel the most overwhelmed. We’re in a restaurant and the kids are losing it. People are watching, probably taking photos.”
Public kid meltdowns suck, but at least most of us don’t have the added intensity of having said eruptions—and your reaction—filmed.
Unsurprisingly, Hemsworth says, in these moments, his battle with a short temper leads him to a fight-or-flight response, with his heart rate spiking, his breath shortening. Can’t blame him.
2 - Stress Will Indeed Kill You
While driving a gorgeous vintage Land Rover Defender that I very much drool over, Hemsworth opens up to Dr. Modupe Akinola, a renowned social psychologist from Columbia Business School. Stress, Akinola replies, isn’t just about feeling bad: “Over time, it can be a killer, contributing to things like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.”
3 - Date Your Stress To Overcome It
It’s a notion Akinola espouses, saying that we can only control our stress after we face it head on. She’ll teach Hemsworth techniques to cope with the most stressful life moments, including the crane walk. To this concept, Hemsworth quips, “I’ve got a really solid relationship with my stress.”
“We need to make a healthier relationship. It’s dysfunctional,” Akinola zings back.
Motioning to the crane in the distance, Hemsworth’s nervous chuckle feels very vulnerable, and Akinola picks up on it. “You sound nervous. What’s making you feel that?” she queries.
“I am very nervous,” he says. “Death is what’s doing it.” Uh huh. Yep. Fair.
4 - Dating Your Stress Is About Your Mental Approach
Not overcoming the fear itself. Case in point: Hemsworth confesses to a fear of heights, to which Akinola says, “This is about preparing you to be able to manage and be present with emotions you’re feeling during stress. Training your mindset to be okay and embrace the stress.”
Meet The Expert
5 - Virtual Danger Still Sparks a Real Fight-or-Flight Response
Outfitted in a virtual reality rig, Hemsworth dons a connected shirt, allowing Akinola to measure his physiological responses, including heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. He then attempts a VR version of the crane walk, one inch off the ground.
Despite understanding it’s a simulation, his biometrics spike immediately, and his explanation of fight-or-flight is a solid one:
“Stress flips a switch in the brain,” Hemsworth says. “Nerves send your system into overdrive, releasing cortisol and adrenaline hormones into the bloodstream. Everything quickens and you feel wired. In moments of danger, that energy surge would help you fight or run away. When it’s over, the stress circuit should switch off. No harm done.”
“But when stress doesn’t go away, one of those hormones—cortisol—keeps on flowing. The fight-or-flight circuit doesn’t fully shut down. Over time, we get burnt out, which can lead to high blood pressure, a misfiring immune system, and elevated blood sugar; all increasing the risk of deadly disease.”
Once more for the people in the back, Chris.
We’ve reported how prolonged stress exposure our veterans endure during combat leaves them more likely to suffer from low testosterone, and other hormonal imbalances.
How Stress Enables Low T
6 - Drown-Proofing Looks Goddamn Terrifying
The next stop on Akinola’s extreme stress exposure train is a seemingly benign swimming pool. Swimming’s relaxing; this development relaxes me.
Then we meet two special forces officers who would instead like to drown our hero. My calm dissipates as they explain Hemsworth will undergo the same drown-proof training they endure.
It’s one helluva endeavor.
Hemsworth’s hands and feet are bound together and he’s shoved into the pool and issued a series of commands and exercises, like underwater somersaults, aimed at only allowing small gulps of air in between movements.
Before Hemsworth’s initial plunge, the lead soldier’s parting words are not heartening: “If you pass out or drown, it’s a fail.” Oi, mate.
Hemsworth’s voiceover of his inner monologue about this being brutal and getting harder isn’t necessary. His writhing and squirming underwater hammers it home. You can practically hear his heart pounding as he attempts to comply.
Emphasis on attempt, too. “He’s a sinker,” snickers the soldier. “Not exactly a successful outing. You failed everything,” he tells Hemsworth.
7 - You Can Absolutely Control Your Mind With Positive Self-Talk
Akinola shares the crux of this exercise: “We won’t be subjected to drown-proofing, but we all will find ourselves out of our depth. We experience situations where we are not prepared and we tell ourselves, ‘I’m a loser; I can’t do this.’ So use positive self-talk. This is about reframing how you think when you think negatively.”
Our fight-or-flight system doesn’t just respond to the outside world, Akinola says. “Our own thoughts and emotions can influence that. Positive thinking can help reverse the negative effects your body automatically enacts when facing stress and allowing you to find the energy to power through, calmly.”
Panting on the side of the pool, Hemsworth admits panicking, his blazing blue eyes now tinged red from the chlorine. But back in he drops and, sure enough, with positive thinking, Hemsworth’s second drown-proofing test goes smoothly.
8 - A Segmentation Approach Reduces Stress
We’re whisked to Horseshoe Bend in Arizona to meet Faith Dickey, a mountain climber and highline walker, whose mindset changed after a serious car crash. After making peace with potential death, Dickey realized that by making stress your friend, you can channel it.
While seeing her perched in many a perilous position, we learn that Dickey is a multiple world record holder in high-lining, and that positive thinking is a dominant tool in her kit.
For her, it’s knowing she can take one small step, which she may yell at herself during a stressful walk.
That ties into the concept of segmentation. Dismantling overwhelming tasks into tiny chunks makes it easier to mobilize. “I don’t think about the full walk [across a void]; I focus on one step. One foot in front of the other. That one step can propel me all the way across,” Dickey says.
9 - Box Breathing Soothes Overwhelmed Brains
When intense feelings mount, there’s a technique to combat it that comes directly from first responders: box breathing.
To box breathe: inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds. Repeat.
Akinola says this demonstrates that stress signals connecting our brain and body aren’t just one way; “Your body can send signals back.”
Hemsworth breaks down the science, explaining with the slow and deep breaths from boxed breathing, nerve fibers in your chest will detect the change in movement and flood your brain with signals to chill out, short circuiting your fight-or-flight system.
We watch him try this shiny new trick out at the New South Wales firefighter training facility. Hemsworth’s got to vanquish a raging fire, and yank three heavy dummies out, all with limited air, so he’ll need to breathe purposefully and calmly.
The concerning audio lays his struggle bare. Instantly, he’s taking rapid, very shallow breaths. He’s forced to abort when he ends up draining too much air from his tank to allow him to safely complete the exercise, and withdraws from the burning structure.
More on Longevity
10 - Mindful Meditation Reprograms Your Brain For Less Stress
Hemsworth concedes boxed breathing went out the window with firefighting—“When you’re in the thick of it, you’re just in survival mode, I guess”— noting it left him feeling empty and disappointed. But his self-flagellation only turns the stress wick up. An hour after the exercise, his breathing rate is still at a stressed level.
So Akinola parks him in a mindful meditation session, routine for Aussie firefighters. As Hemsworth’s breathing rate mellows over the course of the session, Akinola tells us the powerfulness of practice.
“Not only does it make you less stressed in the moment, but, if done regularly, it can alter your stress response,” she says.
“Eight weeks of mindful meditation can rewire connections in key parts of our brain, making us less likely to overreact to things that’ll stress us out.”
11 - Hemsworth's Crane Walk Induced So Much Stress, My Apple Watch Noticed
Preceding his sky stroll, a variety of groans, deep sighs, and nervous laughter emerges from Hemsworth. “There are moments where my brain goes, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ but I can also see it going successfully,” he says.
The challenge, Akinola says, isn’t walking across the crane; it’s doing so calmly, using the taught techniques. “It’s your mindset about that stress that can dictate whether the outcome is positive or not,” she adds and, boy, isn’t that just wonderful life advice?
As he ascends the ladder to the crane, his heart rate quickens with each rung. Also increasing? My palm sweat. He quavers that his feet feel heavy; my brain’s smashing all the panic buttons.
A quick aside: I cannot overstate my debilitating fear of heights. I find bridges daunting, ski lifts ignite intense anxiety, and even medium-sized ladders can go to hell.
And here comes further proof that Hemsworth and I are carbon copies: my heart rate crests 120 bpm right as his does. I know this not only because my Apple Watch chirps to life, asking me if I’m in the middle of a workout, but also because my heart has thumped completely out of my chest.
But he’s about to step onto a freaking crane and I’m over here—at the same level of physiological response—just sitting on my biscuit, never having to risk it. Akinola wants his heart rate to drop, and yes, I would also like that to occur for me.
An enormous hat tip if the intent of the Limitless producers is to elicit feelings that compel you to immediately employ what you’ve just been taught. Because I launch into box breathing and positive self-talk—“You’re watching a TV show and you’ll never have to do this”—and lo, it’s calming. My heart rate and breathing slow.
A final salvo of encouragement arrives from Akinola, who shouts, “One step, one moment, one breath.” (Segmentation, baby.) That’s enough for Hemsworth to set off. The footage from his point of view is utterly paralyzing, but he’s handling everything like a champ, per his biometrics.
Then the first crane segment ends, and he needs to step onto the next section. Except, upon sight of his view, I can see it’s far narrower. Disappointingly, my physiological response to this visual is to send my body far deeper into panic. My palms slicken so much, they’re glistening.
I’m puffing away, box breathing and whatnot, when Hemsworth reaches the end. In turn, he has a (momentary) spiral realizing he’s now got to walk back. His heart rate more than doubles from his baseline, hitting about 150, and there’s the whole dramatic pause while we wait to see if he can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And, of course, Hemsworth does.
He quiets his body and gets his heart rate down, almost to baseline—while doing a one-leg Karate Kid pose, mid-beam. Showoff.
12- You Own Your Destiny
In summation, Hemsworth pledges to mindfully meditate thrice weekly, utilize box breathing and positive self-talk whenever tense feelings creep in. (I pledge to watch the second episode after a Xanax.)
The two biggest takeaways from the pursuit of becoming more stress-resilient, or even stress-proof, are tidily encapsulated by the episode’s stars.
“You can reduce the risk to your health by dialing down the reaction to stress. You can take control of your mind and body,” says Akinola.
“The story you tell yourself becomes your reality,” Hemsworth says. “It really is mind over matter. You don’t have to be ruled by fearful emotions.”
Watch all six episodes of Limitless with Chris Hemsworth on Disney+.