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Caveman in the office Part 1: things to know about stress

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

Our stress response mechanisms have not yet evolved to match what we perceive as a threat today. Learn what happens in your body to manage your emotional state better.

Your body is brilliant at handling a crisis.

It has an amazing ability to adapt and mobilise all resources in an emergency. This design is particularly helpful when you're chased by a lion. Happened to you lately? I'm sure it would be a brilliant HIIT workout.

Once your brain registers danger, your body's physiological response mechanisms are there to keep you alive. It triggers the perfectly orchestrated, instantaneous sequence of hormonal, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal changes to help you react quickly. It's very costly to your body but works in a short term crisis. The type of crisis that ends immediately afterwards, and after which the body can recover and go back to the normal state. If you're in luck and managed to run away and climb a tree.

But the way it works is also surprisingly simple.

In all its brilliance, your body's physiological response to danger is always the same. It's the same when you're attacked by a hungry predator and when you get an unexpected meeting invite from your boss. You know, the one that doesn't come with any explanation about what it is about.

This is so fascinating about the human body. We can activate the body's full emergency response by merely thinking a thought.

Especially an entire Pendolino train of thoughts... "She has been less friendly with me lately... And that comment she made in the last team meeting... It must be about last week's project, the client is not happy with our progress and she probably thinks it's my fault..."

And here is the crux of the issue. When we get stressed by creating events in our heads, we activate the same mechanism that our great, great ancestors used to run away from danger. Our brilliant body goes through the same intense symphony of stress induced changes because of a mere anticipation of something happening.

How often are you facing the lion?

Our bodies have not evolved to match our reality. You're not likely to meet a lion on your way to work anymore (although a thug in a dark street can be the next closest thing).

Instead, stress hormones flood your body when you try to get our kids ready on time in the morning. You heart rate increases when you get an email from your client with feedback on your last project. Your palms get sweaty before the 11 a.m. meeting were you'll need to explain your progress against that completely unrealistic sales target. Do any of them sound familiar? We can easily put the system through the motions a few times before lunchtime.

Being under psychological stress for a long time is a relatively new thing for us humans. And our body is not designed to function this way.

Take your heart as an example. Dr Robert Sapolsky in his brilliant book "Why zebras don't get ulcers" compares it to a mechanical pump, with blood vessels connecting to it like hoses. Together they make your cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular stress response makes it pump extra hard for a while. Your blood pressure rises so that more blood can get sent to your arms and legs preparing you to fight or run. But if you put your heart through it too frequently it simply wears out. Like any garden pump would.

Or cortisol, the stress hormone. Its optimal amount may be exactly what you need to survive that lion encounter. It supplies muscles with glucose that helps your body gather the energy needed to run or fight. But it also shuts down any body functions that are not needed right in that moment. The immune system, the digestive system, sex drive and the reproductive system to name a few...

From there you get a picture of how harmful persistent stress can be. I will spare you the doom and gloom of disease statistics, I'll leave this job to the posters at your GP practice.

So what can you do about it?

Does it mean that we're doomed as a species? Not at all. Our built in equipment is may not be perfectly designed to cope with what causes us stress today. But we can work with what we have.

Read about the ways to deal with stress that I find most effective in Part 2.



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