The History of Stress

Believe it or not, you have stress in your life for a good reason. To understand why stress can be a useful, adaptive response, you need to take a trip back in time.

Stress in caveman times

Picture this: You’ve gone back in time to a period thousands of years ago when men and women lived in caves. You’re roaming the jungle dressed in a loincloth and carrying a club. Your day, so far, has been routine. Nothing more than the usual cave politics and the ongoing problems with the in-laws. Nothing you can’t handle.

Suddenly, on your stroll, you spot a tiger. This is not your ordinary tiger; it’s a saber-toothed one. You experience something called the fight-or-flight response. This response is aptly named because, just then, you have to make a choice: You can stay and do battle (that’s the fight part), or you can run like the wind (the flight part, and probably the smarter option here).

Your body, armed with this automatic stress response, prepares you to do either. You are ready for anything. You are wired.

Stress can convict you

One of your body’s responses to a threatening situation is a dry mouth. In ancient China, this phenomenon was used as a lie-detector test. Interrogators filled suspects’ mouths with cooked rice and then asked them questions. They assumed that a guilty suspect would be under such a high level of stress that his throat would be too dry for him to swallow and talk. Got milk?

Survive the modern jungle

You’ve probably noticed that you don’t live in a cave. And your chances of running into a saber-toothed tiger are slim, especially because they’re extinct. Yet this incredibly important, life-preserving stress reaction is still hard-wired into your system. And once in a while, it can still be highly adaptive.

If you’re picnicking on a railroad track and see a train barreling toward you, an aggressive stress response is nice to have. You want to get out of there quickly.

In today’s society, you’re required to deal with few life-threatening stressors — at least on a normal day. Unfortunately, your body’s fight-or-flight response is activated by a whole range of stressful events and situations that aren’t going to do you in.

The physical dangers have been replaced by social and psychological stress triggers, which aren’t worthy of a full fight-or-flight stress response. But your body doesn’t know this, and it reacts the way it did when your ancestors were facing real danger.

Examples of modern day stress

Imagine the following modern-day scenario: You’re standing in an auditorium in front of several hundred seated people. You’re about to give a presentation that is important to your career. You suddenly realize that you’ve left several pages of your prepared material at home on your nightstand.

As it dawns on you that this isn’t just a bad dream you’ll laugh about later, you start to notice some physical and emotional changes. Your hands are becoming cold and clammy. Your heart is beating faster, and you’re breathing harder. Your throat is dry. Your muscles are tensing, and you notice a slight tremor as you hopelessly look for the missing pages.

Your stomach feels a little queasy, and you notice an emotion that you would definitely label as anxiety. You recognize that you’re experiencing a stress reaction. You now also recognize that you’re experiencing the same fight-or-flight response that your caveman ancestors experienced. The difference is, you probably won’t die up there at that podium, even though it feels like you will.

In the modern jungle, giving that presentation, being stuck in traffic, confronting a disgruntled client, facing an angry spouse, or trying to meet some unrealistic deadline is what stresses you. These far-less-threatening stressors trigger that same intense stress response. It’s overkill. Your body is not just reacting; it’s overreacting. And that’s definitely not good.

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