How Stress Feels, Thinks, And Talks
We’ve heard so much about stress being the disease of the modern times that it might seem strange to talk about stress as an evolutionary adaptation. And yet, acute stress response is an ancient survival mechanism that we share with many animals. Our brains and bodies have developed this outstanding capacity to mobilize resources in order to quickly respond to sudden external threats and maximize our chances for survival. It’s easiest to understand when you think about the animal world.
Suppose you are a zebra happily grazing in the Savanna (just had to quickly google where zebras graze, zoology was not my favorite subject in high school). So you are grazing, and suddenly you see a lion in the bushes, contemplating which part of you it is going to eat first. What are your choices if you want to stay alive? In such situations, your stress response system immediately starts a cascade of physiological changes that prepare you to either fight or run as fast as you can (if I were that zebra, I think I’d go with the running). This is why stress response is often called the fight-or-flight response. Here is what it does. One, it makes sure that all your energy goes into increasing your muscle strength and speed (heart rate goes up, levels of blood sugar and fats go up, muscles tense). Two, it down-prioritizes the systems that are not necessary for immediate survival (slows down or stops digestion, inhibits sexual function).
Ok, it’s clear how the zebra will benefit from all this, but what if I am a human and I have a job interview, how do I benefit from stress response? Most of us no longer live in the wilderness and common situations that cause stress, such public speaking, exams, deadline at work, can hardly ever be solved with fighting or running. And yet, we’ve inherited this way of responding to threats from the far remote past, when most of the threats were physical. Physiological stress response is unspecific in that the body reacts in the exact same way regardless of the nature of the perceived danger. Physiological stress response turns on whenever we feel overwhelmed with the demands and think that they significantly exceed our ability to cope. The demands can literally be anything (some people will stress out if you serve them coffee in a wrong cup because it’s too much of a change to deal with).
By now, you probably recognize the symptoms. Suppose you are to have a very difficult conversation with your boss, which may affect your career prospects. Your heart is racing, you feel tense, you can’t seem to sit still, you might even feel a surge of physical aggression, and you might not be able to convince yourself to eat anything. This is a strong acute stress reaction (chronic stress feels quite different). Maybe next time it happens to you, you will be more understanding towards yourself, and say: “Ok. There is nothing wrong with me, my brain and body have been designed to respond like that when the demands are too high. It’s ok to feel this way”. In fact, some research suggests that when you believe that these very uncomfortable sensations that accompany stress reaction are there for a reason, and that the reason is to help you rise to the challenge, the physiological changes in your body might be less drastic.
Which brings us to the next important point: what happens to our thoughts and perceptions when we are stressed? Remember, the evolutionary purpose of the stress response is prepare us to face a dangerous situation in the present moment. The psychological hyper-arousal that is a part of the stress response can be beneficial to a degree. Let’s look at the performance curve figure, which we saw in the previous section.
When we stay in the left side of the curve, the increased alertness can improve motivation and cognitive performance. However, the higher the arousal, the less helpful it is. Alertness turns into hyper-vigilance and anxiety. Fast thinking turns into racing thoughts. And because we are better prepared if we interpret ambiguous situations as dangerous, under stress we will attribute more significance to negative information and see things in more negative light. Furthermore, because planning, broad perspective, and critical thinking are not essential for immediate survival, the areas of our brain that are responsible for these higher level cognitive processes (prefrontal cortex) are inhibited under stress, making us much less efficient problem-solvers.
Nevertheless, under stress one might feel compelled to problem-solve. We are in the fight-or-flight mode, but in situations when the actual running doesn't help, one might turn to (over)thinking as the hoped for escape route. In such cases, when the thinking is driven by the desperate need for an immediate solution, it can get out of hand, so that there is no space left in your mind for anything but the PROBLEM and the FUTURE. You forget to buy food on the way home. You don't call your friend back because you are too busy thinking. You miss the funny story your child is telling you at dinner.
In such moments, it may be helpful to remind yourself that future doesn't exist. The only thing that is real is the present moment. If you are under stress and catch your vivid imagination turning an uncertain situation into a disaster, try to see if you can ask yourself these questions:
I seem to be reacting as if there is immediate danger. What is the threat? Why do I feel threatened? What happens if I don’t do anything right now?
This catastrophic scenario I just came up with... Is it just my brain under stress talking? What exactly is it saying? Do I really believe it?
I am not equipped to make the best decisions right now. What happens if I stop thinking about this for a moment? Why do I believe it is not safe to stop thinking? Can I postpone the thinking a little bit? Can it wait until I’ve enjoyed my dinner? Can it wait until morning? Do I not have the choice to turn my attention to other things that require it right now?
When stress is talking, it tends to be convincing – remember it has to be, it is our survival mechanism. The stories it tells us are captivating, we can’t stop listening, we keep asking for more (especially tempting to keep listening in the middle of the night, when we are supposed to be asleep). But we don’t live in the Savannah, and unlike zebras, we usually have the luxury to slow down for a moment and challenge this alarming voice in our head. It takes a lot of practice, but one gets more proficient at this dialog, eventually.