What is Stress About?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

This being human, and often a really stressed out human at that, sometimes feels so much more complicated than we ever imagined it would be. Why is that? Over the next while let’s look into this business of being a stressed out human being.

Why should you read further? After all, many of us appreciate the sentiment of Thomas Gray, who wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”, which may have inspired a T-shirt someone gave me that says, “Therapy is expensive, beer is cheap. What to do? What to do?” But dismaying as it is, research tells us that prolonged psychological stress lurks behind a huge array of medical illnesses and psychological problems. Getting to know our stress is truly a wise and effective step towards sparing ourselves all kinds of misery and illness.

Stress is brought to you by a coordination of brain, body and mind that activates us for action. Long, long ago we were all a part of the food chain, stripped of all of the protective comforts and supports that we take for granted today. Our ancestors had to avoid being injured and killed by others and by the environment in order for life to go on. Nature has always been essentially indifferent to whether we make it or not, but it does have ways of selecting for abilities that are better for the job of survival. Because of this selection, brains and bodies slowly evolved protective ways of reacting to threats to survival.

When we see a threat to our well-being a lot happens simultaneously. For one, our sensory systems lock on to the threat, and all of our senses become heightened. We actually see and hear and smell better. Also, the nervous system and circulating hormones get our body ready for action. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all increase and blood is diverted to our major muscles and away from our gut (because we don’t need to digest our lunch if some other animal is digesting us!). The immune system moves to high alert, ready for injury. And there’s lots of emotion. We feel fear, we feel we want to get away, we may feel enraged by the threat. The whole system kicks us into hyper drive, to fight or run for our very life or for the life of a loved one. Together these reactions have tremendous survival value, or at least they did have when we were in the food chain.

This ancient fight-flight-freeze system is still ours today. Although we are now quite removed from the food chain, when we feel stressed we’re feeling the expression of ancient systems that cut their teeth on mortal danger. And we can get quite caught up by these systems. Violent crimes of passion, panicked flight, and freezing on an exam are all examples of this survival system in action.

The short term varieties of stress are interesting for sure. In fact, many of our entertainments draw on stress reactions – thrill ride amusement parks and suspenseful movies are a way of making fear fun! But it’s the long standing stress, the stress from unyielding real and perceived threats, numerous it seems in our lives today, that takes a nasty toll on all of us. Prolonged stress physically harms us, and it can shape our lives, automatically selecting courses of action that may be unwise and pulling us into not-so-healthy methods of coping. More about that next time.