The Evolutionary Roots of Our Stress Response and What We Can Learn Today
When is the last time you heard of a group of people passing away from the flu? How about a village of mothers not surviving childbirth? Or maybe a couple on a walk devoured by a lion? Probably not soon, and if so, not often. So what has this got to do with the stress response? Since the beginning of the cognitive revolution and the end of the industrial revolution, human beings began moving away from the threats that used to plague us for millennia. Chances are, you’re not worried about the water from your tap fatally infecting you. Likewise, you are probably not preoccupied with thoughts of a snake attack. It must be noted that these threats are still very real to many people around the world, depending on your particular geographical and socioeconomic factors. However, there is statistical proof that we have made tremendous leaps in reducing these human vulnerabilities. By and large, we no longer face the threats our ancestors did. We no longer die like other mammals. We don’t fear predators. We are at the top of the evolutionary tree. So, are we now Gods who have transcended the mortal plagues of creatures who live in the shadow of our greatness? The simple answer is no.
The fact is that our environment changed, but our nervous system did not. And this is where the problem lies.
The nervous system is responsible for many important functions in our body. Its primary function is to make us aware of the outside world. For the purposes of this article, I am going to specifically examine its response to stress. Because evolutionary change takes tens of thousands of years, we still have the stress response that did a superb job in protecting us during acute times of stress. However, we don’t get the same dangers in the modern world, yet, the stress response is still being activated.
There’s another big difference. Our ancestors experienced acute, high-level stress. This would be in anticipation of an imminent threat.
The danger would be immediate and over quickly. Modern-day stress is different. It is chronic, low-level and continual. Think of a time when you bubbled with rage at someone on the road for doing something that would not have had fatal consequences. Maybe a time when you took a test that was important, but not life-threatening. Perhaps you freaked out when you felt your left pocket and frighteningly realised that your phone was not there, only to realise it was in your right pocket.
These are all situations in which you are activating an emergency system for scenarios that are trivial with regards to your survival. In essence, we are playing snakes and ladders on a Monopoly board. This chronic activation of ancient circuitry does not go without consequence. Introducing westernised illnesses. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Our downfall is no longer acute stressful situations, but rather chronic, low-level stress on a daily basis. Did you know that you release exactly the same hormones every time your stress response is triggered? This is helpful in a truly stressful situation where we need to stay and fight or escape. However, this release is not helpful if it is continual. Indeed, in non-threatening situations, it can be positively unhealthy. This is because of low levels of stress increase levels in cortisol, which, in turn, has a detrimental effect on the body.
The difference between acute stress is immediate. With low-level stress it is gradual. We do not go out in a poof; we deteriorate over time. An obvious choice of intervention maybe psychology or psychiatry, but if these resources are not available for whatever reason, the self-help points below may help. Firstly, remember that stress is not all bad.
The feeling that you may have when buzzing from excitement is very similar to the bodily feeling when you are concerned. We like good stress, but what defines good stress? It should not be too intense, last too long, and should occur in a benevolent context. If any of these factors are in your control, use them to your advantage to transform your anxiety into excitement. Secondly, there are many clues to look out for and I will leave the exhaustive list for the reader to discover. For now, it may help to mention the most common: gastrointestinal issues, sleep disturbance and a change in mood. If you’re feeling cramps or irritability in your tummy, struggling to get a good night’s rest, or feeling irritable or low for long periods of time, it may help to consider the role that psychological stress may be playing in your seemingly physical problems. Thirdly, remember that not everyone experiences stressors in the same manner. Ergo, stressors cannot be the problem; at least not the whole problem.
There are moderating variables. Experiments with lab rats and how they deal with stress have given us some idea about what these variables may be: Hence, in your own life, if you are able to gather some friends together, able to express your emotions in an unharmful way, or able to schedule your stressor, do it. If all else fails, one effective coping mechanism is mindfulness. Mindfulness is living in the moment. Cultivating your ability to be mindful allows you to experience the sensations of the present moment without craving something better or desiring to avoid something aversive. Mindfulness helps because you are not worrying about future events that may not even happen. Stress is about the anticipation of something to come. When we learn how to centre ourselves in the present, the future loosens its stranglehold. We transform fearful anticipation into the moment-by-moment experience. We no longer die from acute stress, instead, we chip away at ourselves for years. Most of the time, this is below our level of awareness. However, the positive side of our westernised condition is that we can circle back to these same scenarios. We get thousands of small chances, every day, in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ways. As a result, you can cultivate awareness of your inappropriate stress response to the little battles you fight on a daily basis. In fact, by simply paying attention it is possible to win these battles. Others may involve a small shift in behaviour that accumulates into profoundly positive outcomes. Whatever you do, remember this one important fact about our current condition; your survival no longer hinges on your stress response, but your response to stress. References: ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nevern is an intern clinical psychologist currently located in Johannesburg, South Africa. He obtained his degree MA Clinical Psychology Cum Laude from the University of Johannesburg and is currently working in a governmental hospital. He has experience working at schools for Autism Spectrum Disorder, children’s homes for intellectual disability, old age homes for dementia, local clinics, hospitals and psychiatric wards. His professional interests lie in philosophy, critical psychology and neuroscience. His personal interests lie in meditation and music. Nevern has recently taken up the pen as a means to express his perspective on the many intersections of human e.
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