From caveman to corporate: why we respond to stress the way we do

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It’s 9:00am. You've just arrived to work and are settling in at your desk when your boss comes and asks you to meet him in his office at 12:00pm. He gives you no other information and quickly leaves. That's strange. You start to wonder what he might want to talk to you about and search your mind for anything you’ve done recently to warrant a meeting. Did you forget to turn in a report? Your heart begins to pound, sweat beads at your brow, it's difficult to concentrate on your work, you feel on edge, your thoughts and breath both begin to race, and suddenly you find your muscles have become tense. You’re starting to suffer from just some of the many symptoms of anxiety.

Generally, anxiety refers to the nervous discomfort a person experiences when faced with some future danger. It can vary in intensity, duration, and effect, and chances are you’ve experienced some form of anxiety before. A little bit of anxiety or arousal is normal and can even be helpful in improving performance on some learning and memory tasks (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908; Salehia, Cordero & Sandi, 2010).  However, for some people (roughly 1-3% of the US population in any year, or about 3-10 million people), anxiety is all too common an occurrence that has a significant, negative effect on their work or personal life (APA, 2013).  That's a lot of people!

Believe it or not, anxiety evolved as an adaptive trait that aided in our ancestors’ survival. How exactly did it do this? Well, when we perceive something as dangerous, one branch of our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, stimulates our adrenal glands to secrete a chemical known as adrenaline. Adrenaline arouses the body and initiates the "Fight or Flight" response, a response whose purpose is to activate the body to either fight off a danger or to run as quickly as possible to get away from a danger (Sarafino & Smith, 2011). This can be a pretty powerful response. Imagine you are driving a car, another car merges into your lane, and you’re certain the other driver doesn't see you and will crash into your car. In this instance, the Fight or Flight response is initiated. Your pupils dilate, letting more light enter your eyes and improving your peripheral vision so you are better able to see the car approaching. Your heart beats faster to pump more blood to your limbs, which helps you step on the breaks quickly to avoid a collision. Your breathing becomes more rapid to allow more oxygen to get to your body and brain. Your digestive and reproductive functions are put on hold so that more energy can be shunted to activities needed in that moment to survive the danger. When danger strikes, all these little physiological changes could make the difference between whether a person lives or dies.

In the short term, the Fight or Flight response is critical for keeping us safe from danger. However, when we are chronically triggering this response, it causes wear and tear on our body, kind of like an elastic band on a pair of pants. It's capable of stretching to accommodate gaining a few pounds, but if you were to constantly stretch it, it will eventually lose its elasticity and snap. Our body is also capable of reaching a stage of exhaustion/failure from being overused, putting those bodily systems that have been activated too much (or deactivated too much in the case of digestive or reproductive functioning) in danger of diseases like cardiovascular conditions, respiratory illnesses, and gastrointestinal or reproductive issues (for more information read about Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome, Selye, 1950). This is why many people who have experienced chronic anxiety tend to suffer from some physical illnesses related to the bodily systems affected by the Fight or Flight response.

Modern life today is very different from what our caveman ancestors experienced, and this shift can shed light on how people today experience greater levels of anxiety. For starters, our definitions of dangers and "stress" have changed. For cavemen, danger dealt more with threats that could end their life, like a Saber-toothed tiger hunting them. These were primary stressors and they tended to be short-lived dangers. Cavemen used the Fight or Flight response to get through the danger quickly. Once the immediate threat was gone, their bodily functions went back to their normal balance. The whole ordeal may have lasted a few minutes.

For modern humans, "danger" encapsulates a much broader set of threats, some of which have the capacity to end our life (e.g., being assaulted), as well as others that are secondary stressors that aren't immediate threats to our survival, but are threats nonetheless. Despite being less immediately, threatening, these secondary stressors are still associated with our survival. For example, losing a job is stressful and could be associated with our eventual demise, because joblessness can affect our ability to obtain food and shelter, two needs that are directly necessary for survival. Thus, losing a job is a stressor that can initiate the Fight or Flight response, as one perceives this as dangerous. Unfortunately, unlike the cavemen’s saber-toothed tiger dilemma, it is not a short-lived stressor. It can take months to find a new job, and during those months we might continuously experience anxiety until the stressor (i.e., joblessness) is resolved. The result of this prolonged stressor is that we spend more time worrying about the threat, which keeps our Fight or Flight system activated longer, more often, and over a longer period of time, eventually putting us in danger of physical illness.

Unlike cavemen, today's humans have greater critical thinking capacities due to a more evolved frontal cortex. This allows us to create more mental associations between immediate threats and secondary or tangential threats.  That is, the fear of potentially losing your job because your boss has called you into a meeting and you’re not sure why can trigger anxiety just as readily as actually being fired. Perhaps this explains why we perceive more situations as dangerous such as crowded subways, failing a test, giving a public speech, talking to the boss, going through a break-up, going to the doctor, etc.

Regardless of what we define as dangers or threats, the result is the same: triggering the Fight or Flight response, and constantly triggering this response due to even minor stressors or less immediate threats is causing havoc on our wellbeing.

If you are someone who experiences anxiety, rest assured that there are ways to help reduce this anxiety and the physiological stress it puts on your body. As I mentioned before, the Fight or Flight response is initiated by one branch of the autonomic nervous system - the sympathetic nervous system. The other branch of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is associated with rest and relaxation. The parasympathetic nervous system has a see-saw like relationship with the sympathetic nervous system, meaning that only one can be active at a time. These two systems are linked by our breathing, which is something we can consciously control. When we consciously try inhaling and exhaling more slowly and from our diaphragm rather than our chest, we initiate a parasympathetic response and our body responds by disengaging the sympathetic nervous system/Fight or Flight response. This in turn slows our heart rate, lowers blood pressure, constricts the pupils, and resumes digestion and reproductive functions.

Try this as an exercise. Take a comfortable seated position. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breathe naturally for a minute and take note of which hand rises more. If you are feeling anxious, the hand on your chest may be rising more. Ideally, the hand on the belly should be moving more as this indicates relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. To help transition from chest breathing to belly breathing, slowly take a long inhale, inhaling continuously until the count of three or until you feel your lungs have expanded (you can increase this count as you become more practiced). Hold it for two seconds, and then exhale slowly to the count of three. Repeat several times and take notice of the difference after. For people with chronic anxiety, this process of breathing more slowly and relaxed can take time and practice.

Have questions or comments? Feel free to email them to me at shethergray@gmail.com. Until next time, be well.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Salehi, B., Cordero, M. I., & Sandi, C. (2010). Learning under stress: the inverted-U-shape function revisited. Learning & memory, 17(10), 522-530.

Sarafino, E. & Smith, T. (2011). Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial Interactions, 7th edition. Danvers, MA: Wiley & Sons.

Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome. British Medical Journal, 1(4667), 1383–1392.

Yerkes, R., Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J Comp Neurol Psychol 18: 459–482.