Stress As An Evolutionary Adaptation

dealing with stress at home?

dealing with stress at home?Imagine yourself hundreds of thousands of years ago, a newly evolved Homo sapiens sapiens, striking out on the African plain intent on scouting out sustenance for yourself and your kin.  Your muscular and lithe body moves with the wind as you track your prey off in the distance and you’re careful to not let your scent give you away.
What was that?  Your ear catches an unexpected footfall.  You freeze focused on locating the source of the sound.  Your body reacts immediately to this demand and floods itself with stress molecules like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  Your heart starts pounding, your blood vessels contract, speeding circulation away from your slowly digesting breakfast and to your tense muscles and anxious brain. Stored glycogen is churned into glucose to provide ready energy for whatever event is coming next, and clotting factors inundate the bloodstream readying the body for an attack.  You start sweating, cooling you down and making your skin slippery — just in case. Your brain, bathed with glucose and rapid gas exchange, is sharp, and everything in your body is now on high alert.
You hear another footstep right behind you and you spin on your heel ready to strike.  It was only a shrew searching for insects, who feeling your gaze expediently darts away.  After a deep intake of breath, you start to relax, but it will be some time before your body returns to its pre-heightened state.  Now it’s time to pay the costs for your heightened awareness; your body turns to repair work and those functions previously ignored: digestion, reproduction, and fighting off disease.  

The Stress Response: A Product of Evolution

Why did our bodies evolve this stress response if most of the time the perceived threat ends up dissipating?  The answer is hidden in the word most: natural selection is highly reactive to those few life-or-death moments and decisions in an organism’s lifetime.  Many false starts are well worth it if in that critical moment, you are able to survive.
In fact, the stress response was such an important evolutionary innovation that it predates our species, is not only found in all apes, primates, and mammals, but corticosteroids are found across all vertebrates.  Moreover, the amino acid sequences of the important stress hormones are largely conserved, meaning they haven’t changed over hundreds of millions of years and the same proteins are found doing the same jobs in animals ranging from mollusks to insects to apes.

Why Relaxing & De-Stressing Is Hard to Achieve

But what if you weren’t able to fully relax after your encounter with the shrew?  What if shortly after you heard another strange noise or had an encounter with your tribe’s alpha dog?  A string of anxiety producing events and you are now living under chronic stress.  The constant triggering of your racing heart leads to a suite of high blood pressure related diseases; the shunting of resources to your muscles and brain suppresses your immune system leaving you vulnerable to infection and issues within your digestive system; and the constant circulation of glucose in your bloodstream can lead to obesity and diabetes.  Studies in baboons have shown that if you’re low in social rank and living under chronic harassment from your superiors, your immune system is less effective, you’ll get sick more often and age faster.  Stress will take its toll.

The Modern Challenge

But what can you, a modern human, do?  We live in an age where our stress response is not often triggered by life-or-death events, but rather by psychological events: money, work, our relationships, etc.  But the response is the same!
Imagine yourself at your job, shopping for some shoes online.  But you’re not a shopper for Nordstrom, you are an accountant with a big deadline and a history of procrastinating.  Your boss saunters by and as you frantically try to minimize your browser your heart starts pounding, your sweat glands open the floodgates, and corticosteroids surge through your bloodstream.  She veers off to talk to a colleague.  Whew, you live to fight another day.  But how many times is this response repeated?  In a month? In a week?  In a day?  You know the prescription: you need to de-stress your life or face serious physical consequences.

Reducing Stress Requires a Multipronged Approach

De-stressing should be tackled through a multi-pronged approach.  One is by decreasing stressful triggers: completing tasks on time, packing your bag the night before, giving yourself plenty of time at the airport, etc.
But some stress is inescapable: hard conversations still need to be faced, unpleasant people need to be dealt with, difficult problems should be tackled.  These are all parts of a challenging and meaningful life.  So we turn to the other approach to de-stressing: coping.
You can encourage your body to fully relax, to disrupt the chronic stress response.  This can be done through a healthy diet, meditation, massage, hobbies, laughing, and time with friends.  

Thankfully We’re Not Baboons

Even baboons utilize friendships to cope with stress.  Animals that invest more in friendships (through grooming, playing, etc.) have lower levels of stress hormones and are generally in better health.  And unlike the poor baboon above who is pretty much locked into his low status position, you belong to a multitude of social hierarchies, and your place in them is variable and movable.  These many social networks are important sources of healthy friendships that are the best antidotes to stress.
Far from the Serengeti, our modern bodies still feel the evolutionary constraints of stress, but this is not the end of our experience. Our minds, which got us in this mess to begin with by recognizing psychological stressors, are also our best coping vehicle.  We can consciously choose to reduce our stress loads and do the work of repairing and relaxing our bodies.

From the Serengeti to Your Suburban Home

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Dr. Ron is a former chiropractor and a lifelong athlete. He is one of the healthcare experts that is currently on the staff at WBMC and provides a real life perspective on the health benefits of massage chairs.