A Brief 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, and often…a life saving mechanism… take a trip back in time.

Historic Jungle Stress
Imagine this: You’ve gone back in time to a period thousands of years ago when everyone lived in caves. You’re roaming the jungle dressed in your ‘ go hunting’ styled loincloth carrying a spear and 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, as you meander down around the bend in the path you spot a lion. A large hairy mean looking lion. You experience something called the fight-flight-freeze response. This response is aptly named because almost immediately you have to make a decision: You can stay and do battle (that’s the fight part), you can run like there’s no tomorrow, because if the lion catches you, tomorrow will never come, (the flight part), or you seek to camouflage yourself…blend in with your surroundings and hope that beast forgets you or just misses seeing you (the freeze choice)

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

Stress through the centuries
We are almost immeasurably slow to adjust to change. A favourable evolutionary change takes approximately 200,000 years to spread throughout the human gene pool. That suggests we should have started adapting to the Information Age 200,000 years ago.
We didn’t.

The term “stress” has been so ingrained in our minds that it sometimes feels as if it has always been there. In fact, stress as we currently understand it is a very recent idea that is still evolving.

With little doubt we would have used the term stress if we lived in the medieval centuries. With a few significant exceptions, however, it would have had very little to do with our psychological state, unless through implication. Adversity, difficulty, or any type of affliction were more commonly associated with stress. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that there was a shift in meaning.

Most people are familiar with the 18th and 19th centuries as a period of rapid scientific and industrial development. Language evolved to accommodate and articulate these changes as the sciences progressed.

When characterising the impacts of materials, the physical sciences, particularly engineering, began employing terms like stress, strain, resilience, pressure, and elasticity.

Now, those same expressions are commonly used within medicine and psychology. While others, like snapping or breaking point, tend not to be used within the professions they retain a position in everyday language relating to our mental or emotional state and our behaviour.

Hans Selye is commonly, if incorrectly, credited with coining the term stress as a psychiatric concept in 1936. Selye’s work and insight contributed to the growing body of knowledge regarding stress when he proposed a three-stage process called General Adaptation Syndrome,(GAS).

According to Selye, in response to an external stressor, we mobilise our physical resources to deal with or escape the stressor. He called this the ‘alarm’ stage. The ‘resistance’ stage entails attempting to adjust to or cope with the external stressor. Finally, if a person is continually exposed to a stressor and is unable to escape or cope, they reach the state of ‘exhaustion.’

Selye purposefully resisted using the term stress until 1946. He was well aware the word was strongly associated with the concept of ‘nervous strain,’ and he went to great lengths to avoid being accused of using it inappropriately. In terms of accuracy, it was Walter Cannon who coined the term “stress” in 1915 in his work on the fight-flight-freeze response.

Modern Jungle Stress
Well, in this modern 21st century we no longer live in caves, at least literally, and thankfully the opportunities of encountering a wild lion are slim to none. Yet this incredibly important, life- preserving stress reaction is still hard-wired into your system, and it remains highly adaptive.

So in today’s society, where you’re not required to deal with many life-threatening stressors — at least on a normal day, why do so many people react to a variety of problems, challenges and situations as if their life depended on a successful outcome. Lanes of traffic at the roundabout, a low battery alert on your phone, and having to join a queue at the cash machine are not exactly the same thing as staring down a hungry lion with only a stick in your hand.

Your body’s fight-flight-freeze response becomes activated because of what and how you think about a whole range of events and circumstances that aren’t going to absolutely kill you. I know…I know…it seems that way…but REALLY?!

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

In the modern jungle, giving a presentation, being stuck in traffic, confronting a disgruntled client, facing an angry spouse, or trying to meet some unrealistic deadline is far-less-threatening than negotiating with that lion. No pun intended but It’s overkill. Your body is not just reacting; it’s overreacting.

Today’s terminology
Today, the term stress can be used in different ways and for different purposes. If someone says they are under stress, we all know what they mean and in this sense, we have come to view stress as a negative experience. Unfortunately too many people view most go their life events as being in this realm. Psychotherapists distinguish between stress that is harmful, negative stress (distress) and stress that is positive, that fight-flight-freeze mechanism (eustress). In research terms stress now embraces mental, emotional, behavioural, and biochemical effects.

How many times in a day does your body go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When your nervous system detects a threat, it ensures that you have the resources you need to survive. But, realistically, how frequently do you fight-flight-freeze? And if you don’t utilise all of your survival energy to save yourself, where does it go?

Your body reacts in the same way to all imagined dangers. Your body can’t tell the difference between a lion and a layoff, therefore every danger is a threat and every threat causes you to go into one of three modes: fight-flight-freeze.

All of this adds up to stress, which has a negative influence on your health. Modern stress is thought to be the cause of two-thirds to ninety percent of all healthcare issues. High blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, neck or low back discomfort, and a myriad of other ailments are all MCD’s (modern civilisation disorders) which can be traced back to experiencing elevated levels of stress. Your body can’t tell the difference between the past, present, and future. Your body reacts the same way whether you’re remembering a threat from yesterday, facing danger today, or fearful about risk that might occur tomorrow.

Stress can also have a negative impact on your relationships. Typically, we don’t hear as much about social interaction as we do about survival strategies like fight-flight-freeze. Since humans have typically lived in clans or tribes, social interaction is our most evolved survival trait. It’s something we use all the time at home and in the workplace to keep things in order. However, we can’t be socially or economically engaged when we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode. And that’s not healthy or productive.

If you want help sorting out your fight-flight-freeze mode… please click here and set up a free 30 minute meeting and I’ll tell you if I can help.

Here’s to mastering your stress.
The Stress Master
Ches Moulton

About Ches Moulton, The Stress Master
Ches Moulton, a certified stress management consultant, is the UK’s leading authority on stress management. His career has spanned more than 25 years, during which time he has been a much sought-after executive coach, psychotherapist, and trainer. His most recent work has been about helping people with high levels of stress solve their problems and live productive lives without the physical and mental effects of long-term stress.

During his time as a business performance consultant, Ches has served as an advisor to both private businesses and government in Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, Africa, and the Middle East. He is the author of ‘How to Get Control of Your Stress: Instead of Stress Controlling You’, and the international best-seller ‘Choice and Change - How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Ourself and Others’.

For more information… including videos,resources to download,and an opportunity to join Ches when he is live… please visit him at thestressmaster.com

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