What Failure Does To Your Body, According To Science

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again," or so the old saying goes. But whether we like it or not, we just can't be good at everything. And despite our best efforts, we just might fail at some things we try to accomplish. As anyone who's fallen short on a task can attest, failure feels bad: It can be demoralizing, embarrassing, and sad. It can also feel stressful. But is it really true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

According to the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA), there is a quantifiable physiological response to failure, the mirror image of what happens in our bodies and minds when we find success. But failure also helps us learn, according to Reader's Digest Canada. Understanding what our minds and bodies go through when we fail helps improve the odds on a second effort. If you've found yourself overwhelmed by consistent setbacks, science shows us there are a few simple steps you can take to retrain your brain, pick yourself up, and start again. 

The winner effect

To understand what failure does to our body, it's helpful to first know what happens to us when we succeed. According to Forbes, science has a term for it: The winner effect, taken from the 2012 Ian Robertson book, "The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain." As Forbes writes, when we succeed at something — really anything — we set out to accomplish, our brains and bodies are flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. All things that give us that euphoric feeling, leading us to want to get back out there and try that thing we're good at again. Because winning makes us feel good, we stick to it, and inevitably, we get better. 

As Psychology Today notes, sufficient amounts of glucose in our diet affects cognitive function, eating better, thinking better, and succeeding. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, that all makes sense. We seek out and repeat tasks we're good at, and over time we get better at them. In doing so, neural pathways are formed and deepened in our brains, helping us feel more confident and assured. It's how we grow and learn, and it's also a natural failsafe mechanism to encourage us to do all the stuff we need to get done to survive. But what happens, though, when things don't go as planned? Like success, when we fail, our brains are bombarded with a chemical cocktail, just this time, a different mixture, per the IEA.

Losing doesn't feel good for a reason

Instead of feel-good chemicals, when we fail, our brains are flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response and regulates feelings like disappointment and shame, all common enough emotions after we experience failure, as Heartmanity notes. When we're in a high-stress state, our lower brain takes over the driver's seat from our upper cognitive function. As a result, we become more emotional and reactive, usually involuntarily. Though some people might be motivated by those feelings, we tend to dwell on real or perceived failures, recreating the chemical reaction in our minds and bodies, deepening those neural pathways, as IEA writes.

To overcome failure, it's best to reframe those feelings in our brains. Set small goals, earn your dopamine reward, and slowly that physiological response will fade. According to Heartmanity, everyone experiences failure from the time to time, and it's important not to suppress your feelings but try and learn from them rather than dwell on what went wrong. Speaking with IEA, neurologist Dr. Judy Willis said, "[Y]our goal is to rewire your brain's expectations that your efforts will yield progress, even through increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do but won't really look forward to doing." Instead, Willis said, "Select a goal that you would enjoy en route and at the finish."