I recently was exposed to the wonderful lectures of Professor Robert Sapolsky on Stress and the Body. The bit of info below is a summation of his first lecture. Stress is not something to be taken lightly. It won’t be something that will kill outright but it will slowly weaken and allow other ailments to fully have their effects felt. The visions that comes to mind are a bunch subtle earthquakes that slowly keep moving the earth and shaking and moving the foundation of a home. That movement of each separate incident is not something to be too concerned about, however as years pass, and if all goes unchecked, slowly the home will crash in on itself as the skeleton and muscle involved in keeping the house upright comes crashing down at the slightest storm. Don’t let a run of the mill storm or weather take down your house. Stress is pretty much an inevitable part of life. Know how it works and how to defend against it. The human body takes on a similar reaction to stress.
Most mammals experience stress far different from most humans (at least from most western, industrialized living humans). Acute stress (short term) challenges present themselves in nature as animals have to worry about being eaten. Three minute chases that can end in getting injured and the animal having to find a safe place to recover, and where it won’t be attacked, is a common scenario. Or, if the predatory animal doesn’t catch his dinner in the next big chase then energy will be wasted and starvation could be imminent. That’s a lot of stress and pressure. An animal’s body has to be working in tip top shape in order for that kind of stress to occur and be handled.
Humans don’t exactly have to worry about this chase scene in the same sense. The kind of stress we suffer from is psychological and chronic (lasts over a long time). We worry about situations that will slowly do us in over decades that include diseases, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, social economic status and social acceptance. Many lucid dreaming days and sleepless nights revolve around these worries. Our neurosis runs wild with scenarios that will end our life or leave us with nothing. ‘What if my thirty-year mortgage doesn’t work out’, ‘what is my social status compared to others’, ‘what if my car breaks down’, ‘what if that pain in my side is cancer’, ‘what if I get laid off and have no money’, ‘what if I amount to nothing in my life?’ What about asking yourself if you happen to eat a lot of carbs when you’re feeling unloved? Figuring out some solution to that last question would solve roughly half the cases of diabetes in our country. We experience a profound luxury within the animal kingdom to mostly only have to deal with chronic stress as opposed to the acute stress and fear associated with getting our gut ripped open by a predator. However, tell that to a person suffering from chronic sense and it won’t mean much to them.
The interesting part about being human and dealing with psychological based chronic stress is that we have evolved to be able to control and turn on and off our stress responses to our stressors. Major stress for humans includes when things get out of homeostasis. The balance in our bodies and minds veer unhealthily to one thing. Something happens and we see a dramatic need to go in one direction; getting a project at work that makes the next month super intense and eating and sleeping is compromised as your thoughts are always obsessed on the project. This is not healthy but the thought goes that after a month of dealing with the project it will be easy to regain homeostasis again as one will then dedicate time to other, more pleasant, enjoyable things. Another form of major stress for humans is thinking one is about to be knocked out of homeostatic balance. It makes us neurotic, anxious, paranoid, hostile, depressed, unhappy, etc. This stress creates psychological angst, suffering and is harder to detect, directly see the source of, and filled with a lot of ‘what ifs’ about things you assume and fear about your life that usually haven’t been experienced yet or are mysterious overall. The important thing to notice here is that this kind of psychological stress is turned on just from thinking about thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. and it affects the human body in the same way as the animal running for their lives and dragging its guts to a safe spot to recover. We lie in bed and seem relaxed and go on Facebook and seem content but we are running for our lives in our brains day after day. This kind of chronic stress wears us down and will lead to our bodies being easy targets for disease and lowers your threshold for dealing with problems.
In an acute stress crisis our bodies need certain things. We need vast amounts of energy available (glucose in the blood stream). Our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates all increase as we need that energy to get to where it needs to go as fast as possible. Our bodies turn off all long term building projects which slows down growth, digestion, reproduction; start puberty next week if there is a next week! The immune system is activated and clotting ability is enhanced, and our bodies blunt pain receptors. We increase oxygen and glucose to the brain and learning, memory, and recall is given a boost (sometimes not if in super extreme flight or fight moments). In these stressful moments, we work very hard and our bodies try to be as efficient as possible in order to get out of the impending crisis. There is a reason you can remember stressful times in your life very vividly. Your body was working at peak performance in what it believed was a short term obstacle to being restful and relaxed and regaining its strength. Quite a reward for it to work hard.
The problem that most often occurs is, what happens if the stress response is turned on too often for psychological reasons and acute stress then very easily turns into chronic stress? Homeostasis is initially achieved by solving the acute stress problem but your mindset gets conditioned to stay in perpetual stress mode, hence bringing on chronic stress, and now the stress response is more damaging than the original stressor you turned it on for; ‘today’s an emergency and I got to get stuff done’, takes over day after day. Using stress to get things done in any task is a short term fix that if abused brings upon long term depletion and disease. Yes, definitely sounds appealing in our ‘go go go, growth at all costs’ capitalist society or to a teacher in an impoverished school that is responsible for 180 students that all need lots of attention in order to succeed and not become victims of drugs and violence on the streets. Everyday can easily become an absolutely emergency and we need the best performance we can muster up. In a way, we are no different than people who abuse substances/drugs. Sure powerful substances can keep us awake and focused and motivated for hours on end and make us get things done but with it comes inevitable crash and addictions, burnout, and other massive problems. And we wonder why so many people in our culture struggle with chronic problems associated with stress. There is too much pressure and normalization for resorting to abusing one’s own body with stress to accomplish whatever task is at hand.
An analogy for acute stress is two kids on a see-saw. Their attention spans are short and with the feelings experienced from the activity, all have forgotten about who stole whose lunch or how mom yelled at me earlier as fun is at hand and nothing else seems to matter. After a short time when they’ve had enough, they have to figure out how to jump off at the right time so all remains balanced as it was before. With the children being light and not having played on the see-saw for so long a crazy crash to the equipment or them is not as likely. For chronic stress, it’s more like two elephants on a see-saw. Each elephant weighs an enormous amount and is doing something extremely important (or thought to be something extremely important) and the balance is teetering this way and that. The balance gets harder and harder to maintain and if you stay on too long the weight will break the see-saw. Getting off is hard because both elephants have to give in to giving up their ever so important task and then work together to get off evenly so one side isn’t left crashing down and being left in an unbalanced state. Usually the crash occurs and it’s hard to recover from and it leaves your see-saw broke for at least some time before you can recover and adequately ride it again.
The solution to avoiding chronic stress is not exactly in the homeostasis of balancing out one part of the body but in the allostasis response of balancing out the whole body. If you get stressed like a normal mammal, you better be capable of turning on your stress response to deal with it. If you get stressed like a psycho-socially, sophisticated, human being, you are constantly going to be paying the price of dealing with chronic stress being activated. It is as human as cooked food.
The lecture states that we simply did not evolve well to be able to handle chronic stress appropriately. Even though, as far as we know, other animals do not possess this kind of stress, rather only having acute stress, I would disagree with the professor that we haven’t evolved to deal with it. As the eons pass, new hurdles will present themselves but each evolutionary step doesn’t mean it didn’t prepare us for what’s next. Thinking we know what would have prepared our species appropriately for problems it is facing now or will face seems to be giving our species too much credit for having figured out the universe. This represents an overall problem with our outlook as a species (or just western culture) and gives rise to the notion that we are too smart for our own good. Thinking we are smarter or claiming to know what’s best in the evolutionary process will bring about its own major problems with our species moving along. Forget about the ills of dealing with chronic stress.
Anyway, perhaps most humans are living in a way that doesn’t lead to positive health relating to chronic stress and we are in an era where we’re learning this. It seems very much to be the natural evolutionary process (how can it not?). We are encountered with a problem and we either make it happen and move along the evolutionary path or we whither in our own footprints and become a species dealing with our own limitations and a thing of the past or not as mighty as we assumed. So much disease in the world comes from negatively dealing with stress. How will humans evolve to learn how to deal with this in positive ways? It would most certainly come in the form of us living in a dramatically different culture and norms than the one(s) we live in today. Perhaps we’ll look back one day and be in disbelief at how we carried ourselves in the era that was defined by chronic stress and the ills and negative grip it had over humanity.