stress and health

 Stress, in its acute form is vital for survival. Stress is not a state of mind like sadness. It is something we can measure hormonally, in brain scans and by examining cellular damage. The issue is that the modern world presents long-term problems that over-activate the sympathetic nervous system, constantly signalling to our bodies that we’re in life or death danger. Science has demonstrated that chronic stress can kill brain cells, cause weight gain and alter our DNA. All of this makes evolutionary sense. If your life is in constant danger then the parts of your brain that deal with nuance are unnecessary and may actually be a liability. If the sky is falling, it may be hard to get food in the future so it makes sense to increase fat stores. Your body doesn’t make changes based on objective reality, it makes changes based on pragmatic reality. That is why two people can be experiencing the same ‘reality’ and respond in totally different ways, because for each person reality is only understood after it has passed through their Sense Lens.

Stress is an unusual force because it permeates so deeply into a wide range of behaviour, it can affect the way a person thinks, feels and the way they behave. It can even change the way your body works. Not all of these changes are catastrophic, most are just a little bit uncomfortable. Many are completely reversible even though when they are happening there very damaging to your quality of life.

There are certain environments where these forces can result in diminished work performance, social issues and plummeting physical well-being.  Fatigue, depression and stress negatively reinforce each other.  The International Labour Organization estimates that  over 10% of  adults in Germany, the UK, Poland, and the United States are suffering from stress, burnout, anxiety, or depression. Mental health problems are now the third leading cause of disability behind heart disease and bodily injuries. The Health and Safety Executive states that between 15% and 30% of workers are suffering from depression or anxiety at any one time, sometimes close to 1/3 of the workforce. Globalisation is a big factor in all of this but we can’t lay all the blame at its feet, as managers we need to take responsibility for our stress policy and ensure that we are mitigating the negative effects of the environments that our employees are required to compete within which is often harming them in unforeseen ways.

Our position in the responsibility hierarchy alters our sensitivity to stress and so it is important for managers to realise that their employees experience the same stressors differently to them. It is not because they are weak, it is a biological consequence of their position within the company’s hierarchy. Sapolsky has many studies demonstrating the link between relative status and stress. Sapolsky studied the cells of wild baboons to learn about their stress response. He believed that the baboons would be a good model for humans because the baboons he studied were not harassed by predators day to day and had plenty of food so any stress found would not be coming from predators, food scarcity or overwork but from their social interactions with one another. This is what makes his studies particularly interesting for workplace stress management professionals.

A good way to understand stress is to investigate the link between stress, pleasure and the position that somebody occupies within in their social hierarchy. Most of the pleasure we feel is mediated by dopamine and various sites in our brain have dopamine receptors. Researchers used a PET scanner to measure the baseline dopamine level in a variety of apes going from low status apes to high status apes. They found that the higher the status of the ape, the higher the level of dopamine present in the brain and conversely low ranking apes had lower dopamine. This affects was so interesting because it mapped specifically to the apes position in the social hierarchy, you could accurately predict the social rank of a whole group of apes based on brain dopamine alone.

What does this mean? For one thing a low ranking ape is not going to enjoy their food is much as a high-ranking member of the same troop, they’re not going to enjoy the sunshine as much as a high-ranking member, basically every aspect of their life is less awesome to them because they have less dopamine I their brain. They can be experiencing the very same stimulus but it is the social rank that determines how much they will actually enjoy it. This goes a long way to explaining why different people can have such divergent reactions to the same stimulus. I think we can all think of somebody that we know who sees the negative side of everything: when the sun is shining it is too hot, and when the sun is not shining it’s too cold and everything is just gray in their view of the world.

The two main hormones that drive the stress response are adrenaline and glucocorticoids both of which are produced by the adrenal glands. These hormones are instrumental to our survival and you would not be reading this right now if we did not develop these mechanisms. Stress evolved in mammals as a response to an immediate life or death crisis such as running away from a predator or running after prey. We usually only think of stress as the running away response but the adrenaline fuelled thrill of the chase describes the other side of the the stress response. Stress itself is neutral, like water, problems only arise when there is too much of it or it gets into the wrong places.

During periods of stress, processes such as growth, reproductive functions and tissue repair are arrested because they are deemed nonessential in the present moment of threat. However, these functions are of course important which is why chronic stress is so harmful, it shuts down these systems long term. In an emergency a government may declare martial law, shutting down non-vital parts of government in order to focus resources on solving a legitimate threat. We all know the damage that chronic martial law can do when it is extended beyond reasonable limits and used to stifle the population or to squash protest. Martial law is the stress response of the State and looking at instances where it has been overused can serve as a macrocosm of what is happening inside your own body. Habeas corpus and civil rights are important and should not be suppressed for too long; sexual function and DNA repair are important and should not be suppressed for too long.

In our slightly hazy past, when the hunt was over, we would be able to relax. Even if we were the prey. Zebras can be surrounded by hungry lions without freaking out, right until the chase begins when the stress response kicks in and they run for their stripy lives. And then they are chill again. We have created a world that can trigger our stress response on a constant basis. No other animal has to deal with this challenge but then again no other animal gets heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. But we may be able to have our underwear and eat it too. We set off the stress response that evolved to deal with physical threats by presenting it with psychological threats. This is the real problem. It is not the fault of the society we have built but our response to it.

The stress response is common to all mammals. The earliest mammal fossil we have is 160 million years old. That means the basic stress response is very old. The very longest that we, not as a species but as a genus, could have been smart enough to torment ourselves psychologically is about 2.3 million years ago and that’s being very generous to the mental capacities of early hominids. When you compare that to the 160 million years we’ve been mammals, then the amount of time evolution has had to materially impact our body systems is about as significant as the amount of time you have spent thinking about plucking your father’s eyebrow hair with your teeth. And if we accept that only anatomically modern humans are smart enough to engage in psychological masochism, then the adaptation time is even shorter.

At this point, it makes sense to point out that there are two categories of stress. Eustress, which we experience on roller coasters, watching thrillers or during competition is very rarely a problem. This is mostly due to negativity bias. Distress, which we experience on bumpy plane rides, being kidnapped or as victims of bullying is more likely to become destructive. This is mostly due to negativity bias. We run towards eustress and we run away from distress. The difference between the two is a matter of perception. I hate roller coasters and my girlfriend loves them. If we are on the same ride she will be experiencing eustress and I will be feeling distress. This even applies to truly life or death situations. For example, most of us would be distressed to the point of trauma if we were placed in the type of situation a Navy SEAL enjoys in overseas operations. And if you question their enjoyment of these dangerous operations, just listen to Jocko Willink. In this extreme case what separates you from the SEAL, except for temperament, is training. They are conditioned to respond to distress as if it is eustress, they are trained to love it.

The lesson for managers is that you will never be able to reduce the stress your employees must deal with while simultaneously maintaining your competitive advantage. However, you have the power to reframe the distress that is part of your day’s work into eustress. You will see a difference in behaviour. The biggest difference is that you will notice a reduction in avoidant behaviour. Instead your team will energetically seek challenge. Vulnerability to distress increases as one moves down the social hierarchy, partly because individuals lower down have less control over what happens to them and so they experience increased uncertainty. That is why the fear of speaking to large groups is so common. With a single person, the possibilities are quite limited. However when you are making a presentation to 10 skeptical people, the possibilities become functionally infinite. If your brain tries to plan for each eventuality it will start with all the worst-case scenarios. This triggers the stress response which sabotages performance, leading to more distress through a negative feedback loop. The is the mechanism by which uncertainty produces distress.