It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
– Sun Tzu
Why do we get stressed out?
Any challenge to our default way of living creates stress.
The stress response is your body’s way of telling you to get things back to normal quickly. This can be useful when you’re being chased by a bear, the classic “fight or flight” response kicks in and the stress triggers a number of changes in the body.
Your heart rate and blood pressure rise, supplying your muscles with much needed energy and oxygen, so that you can sprint away to safety.
Trouble is, getting chased by bears is probably not what you get stressed about.
In fact, much of your stress may derive from things which do not exist in the present moment. We create stories in our minds and when they have a bad ending, we feel stressed.
Evolution has ensured that our response to real, physical threats is superb but imaginary threats that exist in our minds, less so. High blood pressure is good for sprinting, not if you are sitting in an office late one night frantically writing a financial report.
Ultimately, we are stressed too often, for too long and for reasons that often do not make much sense.
No laughing matter
Sustained stress makes us more aware of people with angry faces. After all, these angry people could be angry at us, so our mind subconsciously scouts the scene to preempt possible threats. Unfortunately, stress deteriorates our accuracy in rapidly assessing the emotions of faces too, meaning that in reality people might not be as angry as we think.
Still, thinking that everyone wants to kill you has its downsides.
This is why it’s not a good idea to play a joke on a stressed-out friend, even if you are struggling to hide your laughter, your friend may not be able to recognise your witty banter and that’s when things get really awkward.
Fearing the worst
Stress makes it easier to learn a fear association and to consolidate that fear into a long-term memory.
Think back to the first time that you had to do public speaking, I’m guessing that you felt quite stressed. Then years later you are required to give that important speech and despite having presented in public before you feel a deep sense of unease and panic.
The fear association was put there from your younger days.
What makes the situation worse is that stress also makes it harder to stop being scared.
If you were stressed the first time you spoke to an audience, you will be stressed the second time you do it and this inhibits your mind from extinguishing the fear, making it a long and drawn out process to finally become confident speaking in front of people.
I think my brain is broken
Excessive stress can impair working memory to the extent seen after brain damage.
That’s why managing stress is crucial to cognitively challenging activities.
Too much stress can also make you stubborn and more willing to take a risk.
Consequently, you make decisions that would expose you to a greater chance of loss, then you stick with those decisions even when they’re not working, and finally you struggle to remember why you made those decisions in the first place.
When we are stressed we seek a way to release that pent-up frustration.
Stress induced displacement aggression means that we hurt others in an attempt to reduce our stress levels.
During economic recessions spousal and child abuse increase.
Even football results can affect levels of family violence. Your team wins and everything is okay, but your team loses and you lash out.
Rats do the same thing too, biting another rat to displace their stress but not over football scores thankfully.
Being extremely stressed out makes it difficult to think about others, I mean we are struggling to even think about ourselves. When making emotionally intense moral decisions, we are more egotistical, selfish and unempathetic. We put our needs above everybody else’s while considering others’ needs to be below our own.
Let’s add alcohol
Many people turn to alcohol on Friday and Saturday evenings after a demanding work week.
But how does alcohol affect us?
Well you may have that one friend that has a couple of drinks then decides that the only way to make the night memorable is to instigate a bar brawl.
The day after your friend says something like this: “It was the alcohol, you know I’m not like that normally”.
Now here’s the truth.
Alcohol only evokes aggression in individuals prone to aggression.
For example, men with the oxytocin receptor gene variant less responsive to oxytocin are more likely to be aggressive under the influence of alcohol.
Oxytocin plays a role in human pair-bonding, more specifically, when couples first get together their oxytocin levels are elevated.
So if you want your aggressive friend to chill out, set him up on a few dates.
Finally some good news!
Being engaged, engrossed or challenged are benevolent forms of stress.
We just don’t call it stress, a more suitable word would be stimulation.
The right amount of stimulation can be helpful to us. If you are the type of person who likes working on a complex math problem, then under this form of stimulation, your mental capacity will temporarily improve.
Without stimulation, your life would be boring, unfulfilling and that can lead to the bad kind of stress.
It’s a careful balancing act, we want to maximise stimulation from the activities we engage in. Who doesn’t want to be completely immersed in the things they choose to do? But too much stress and the problems are numerous and severe.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
– William James
Primary source and inspiration: Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Image credit: @Headspace