Understanding Stress

One of life’s idiosyncrasies is how it is seemingly full of paradoxes. One paradox that interests me is our various responses to stress. Some people seem to be able to cope with life threatening illnesses with equanimity. Others seem to fall apart at the seams when faced with, what seem to the rest of us, minor difficulties. Even stranger, I have seen someone handle a diagnosis of cancer and resulting radical surgery with stoicism and equanimity but then fall to pieces when faced with a minor concern to their personal finances!

It is enlightening to look at our evolutionary history in this regard. There is no doubt that the defining characteristic of humankind is our consciousness. Our consciousness has bestowed on us many benefits. But it is also a poison chalice. Our consciousness brings to us a realisation of our mortality. Our existential angst is a source of great stress.

But more than this our consciousness enables us to imagine the future. For the more pessimistic of us some of those imaginings can be quite threatening.

I once read a book with the lovely title of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. (I have searched my library but can’t find it to give you a better reference.) But with respect to the zebras the plausible thesis was that even though zebras are a favoured prey for lions, and being pursued by a lion is certainly stressful, once the pursuit is over the zebra, without our well-honed sense of consciousness, doesn’t concern itself about future encounters with lions.

Now humans are most likely to not only be concerned about future encounters with lions but to imagine such encounters even when the circumstances might indicate that they are unlikely. (And not only with lions but with all sorts of unlikely imaginary threats.)

One of our dilemmas is the fact that from an evolutionary standpoint humans are still hunter-gatherers. Our biology has in fact evolved to deal with the immediate stress of life-threatening dangers. Such threats for hunter-gatherers were episodic. Every now and then we had to face a marauding warrior from an opposing tribe or a wild animal that might cause our death. These episodes were usually over and done with quickly. Our heightened stress response served us well in coping with these challenges. When our lives were short anything that helped to extend them somewhat conferred an evolutionary advantage. The dilemma today is that the stressors (concern for our sense of self, the prospect of being made redundant, the struggle to position ourselves for job promotion and so on) are ongoing concerns. They are seldom concerns for our physical safety. Our biology has evolved to equip us to deal with the immediate stress of life threatening dangers. The physiological response of increasing our adrenalin which temporarily heightens our physical response provides a great reward in such circumstances if it helps us thwart an immediate threat to life or limb. But when such a response is prolonged because our perception of threat is enduring it results in long term physical problems like hypertension, heart disease and depression.

Human beings, because of their consciousness, have this other layer of stress to deal with beyond physical well-being. As a result of our consciousness we have a concept of self. For many of us maintaining that spurious concept is even more important than our concern for physical existence. Why else would suicide be so prevalent? The mind has invented all sorts of subterfuges to avoid threats to the ego. We often think that because of our cognitive capabilities we are rational. But this is not so. As the good Dr Phil points out we are rationalising. Our intellect is often engaged to explain away threats to the ego.

What we have learned in recent decades of brain research is that an engaged brain is central to our long-term physical and mental vigour. That vigour comes from constantly engaging the brain with new stimuli. Consequently one might conclude that the best kind of life is one that is full of change. Yet most of us avoid change like the plague. And why? Because it stresses us.

There is a vast scientific literature on stress and its harmful impact. One simple test developed by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe almost fifty years ago used exposure to some 43 stressful life events to predict the likelihood of an individual succumbing to illness. Holmes and Rahe discovered that people who led more turbulent lives were more likely to become ill than those who with calm, ordered lives.

Perversely, it is not only events that we perceive at the time to be unpleasant (for example the death of a spouse, becoming unemployed, having a messy divorce etc.) that dispose us towards health issues, but even positive events (getting married, buying a new house, having a child, being promoted etc.) can have the same impact. Our joyful emotional experiences increase our risk of illness just as much as our painful experiences.

But stress can also be positive. In order to flourish we need to function at an optimal level of psychological stimulation. It is interesting that in my career as a manager and latterly as an executive coach I have found that whilst people often complain about being “overworked” most would concede that not having enough to do is far more stressful!

Although the optimal level of stress varies markedly from person to person, we all suffer the same symptoms if under-aroused – we get bored! Boredom is psychologically painful. One of the pioneers of stress research in the 1930’s, Hans Selye, coined the term “eustress”. By eustress Selye meant stress that stimulates performance. To gain maximum performance we need to be challenged but not overwhelmed.

In today’s society we are in many ways overstimulated but underengaged. The ubiquitousness of digital technology has changed the life orientation of many. It seems most of us can’t stand not being “connected”. My wife and I went out to dinner some weeks ago. At a table near us was a young couple. As they waited for their dinner to be served both sat engrossed with their smart phones. There was no conversation until the meal arrived! I travel into the city on the train and almost everyone under the age of fifty is fiddling with an i-Pad, a mobile phone or an MP3 player. Even if I get up and go for my geriatric jog at 5:00am there are people walking on the bike track talking on their mobile phones. It is as though they can no longer bear to be with themselves. For the more contemplative of us mental stimulation is easily achieved by having some time to ourselves to think. This seems to be an abhorrent concept to many younger people who on being alone immediately need to connect with someone via the technology. I am sure that many such people would be stressed to be alone without resort to their favourite digital technology!

But I digress. Just as we saw above in the writings of Hans Selye, stress has a bad press.

Bruce Mcewan, the Alfred E. Mirsky professor of neuroscience who runs the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University points out that stress is not necessarily bad. Stress is the psychological and physiological response to challenges. If we had no challenges in our lives, we would have no stress. But if we had no challenges in our lives we would also have no growth and little learning. McEwan talks of allostasis which he defines as “the body’s adaptive efforts to maintain stability in the face of stress”.

McEwan writes:

“For each system of the body, there are both short-term adaptive actions (allostasis) that are protective and long-term effects that can be damaging (allostatic load).”

Research has shown that for people with a high allostatic load they are likely to be more anxious, susceptible to short term memory loss, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. The mind inevitably impacts on the body.

I used to run workshops on how to deal with stress. It is helpful, I found, to look at stress in the following way:


This tells us that stress is increased with increasing environmental demands and is reduced with increasing resilience.

One of the problems that we face is that most interventions to reduce stress focus on reducing demand and consequently we work on ameliorating the environmental stressors. At best this provides a temporary relief in those particular circumstances.

It is far better if we are able to increase people’s resilience in the face of stressors. In this way they are better placed to endure stress in whatever environment.

Now, as we saw above, in a modern society like ours there are few of us constantly facing physical threats. Most of the threats or perceived threats in our lives relate to a diminished sense of self. We are continually asking ourselves such questions as:

“How do I look?”

“Will I make a fool of myself?”

“What if I fail?”

“Will I be blamed?”

“What will my parents/friends/peers think of me?”

And so on.

Our best defence against such attacks on our psyche is to have a robust sense of self. How to do this? Well I have written many essays on this and related subjects in the past. Yes, I know this is the easy way out, but for a start you might want to read my essay “Self” – Management which I published on May 24 in 2014. You will easily find it in my archives.

In both my professional and private lives I see people who are debilitated, and unfortunately even sometimes destroyed by stress. When we come to truly understand who we are, we become immune to the psychological impacts of stress. Indeed as we saw above, if we are prepared psychologically, stress is an agency for growth and development.


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