Are We Evolutionary Prone to Stress?
Reaction to the articles “The Neuroscience of Conversations” by Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conversational-intelligence/201905/the-neuroscience-conversations) and “Understanding the Stress Response” by Harvard Health Publishing https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
According to research, our brain is basically composed of 3 distinct main parts. The brain stem, the limbic brain, and the prefrontal cortex.
The brain stem, also known as reptilian brain, helps regulate breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and several other important basic functions. These functions, most of the time, happen at the subconscious level. Imagine having to remember every time you breathe? It’d be kind of annoying. In survival terms, the brain stem is our first line of response. It’s what gets us out of the way from oncoming traffic even before we are able to process it. It basically keeps us alive in the most basic way; like reptiles do, hence its name.
The limbic brain, or mammal brain, developed in animals that need groups to survive and deals with emotions and memories. Through years and years of evolution some animals, mainly mammals hence the name, figured out that living in community would give them a bigger chance of survival. Be it to hunt as in the case of wolves, or to call out when predators are coming as certain species of monkeys do. In terms of survival, we figured out that belonging to a group and being able to stay in it helped us survive. So for example, when our partner breaks up with us, we sense danger because we go back to feeling that we might be outcasts, which diminishes our chances of survival.
The prefrontal cortex is a different story. It’s only present in human beings and deals with reason, imagination, and creativity. The most special thing about the prefrontal cortex is that it allows us to think about the future. In terms of survival, it helps us make good judgement calls based on predictable outcomes. For example, it might help you not overeat because you can reason that it’s not good for your health and that might en-shorten your lifespan.
This brain of ours is the result of millions of years of evolution. And it’s supposed to work as a unit to help us raise our chances of survival. However, the system that is designed to help us thrive, could potentially be having some trouble with our modern lifestyles.
The Brain’s Response
When we are alerted of something that our brain catalogues as dangerous, we go into survival mode. The combination of reactions that happens when our brain is presented with danger is called the flight, fight or freeze (FFF) mechanism. This means that you’re basically going to handle the situation in one of three different ways; you either feel up to the challenge and are going to face it; you don’t feel up for the challenge so you figure your best way to go is running away from it; or you figure that playing hide-and-seek is the best way to elude the situation all together. Whatever you rationalize is best, your body is still going to prepare you for the threat so as to give you the best chance of survival.
The first part of your brain that’s going to detect the threat is the brain stem. And depending on the threat’s nature the other parts of the brain are going to be called upon to deal with whatever they are best. The catch is, our prefrontal cortex is not always triggered.
There’s a few problems we are encountering with our natural firewall. The first is, if we are not capable of calling our prefrontal cortex to deal with (the) problems (that need it to be called upon), we might find ourselves not handling them the best way.
For example, sometimes in a heated discussion we might feel personally threatened and instead of processing the problem, our brain stem could get triggered causing us to turn on fight mode. We will then act only in self defense, and not be consciously thinking and analyzing what is being said to us to try to reach an agreement. Or if we feel our sense of belonging to a community is being threatened, like for instance breaking up with a significant other, our limbic brain will jump in and make us act out of emotion rather than judgement.
The best way to deal with these two example situations and any other that feels like a (non-imminent) threat, is to train our prefrontal cortex to turn on and make judgement calls based on our morale, ethics, and predictions of the future that will likely be more beneficial to us.
However, the biggest problem our defense mechanism is facing these days is that as our threats have become less of a predator trying to eat us and more of a manipulative boss pressing us down, our bodies still react with the FFF response.
And the biggest downside of the FFF response mechanism is that the same preparation our body goes through to get us ready to survive, has some negative side effects. Our muscles tense; our blood pressure rises; the sense of danger might make us overeat; and our anxiety rises, among many others.
This is caused mainly because we are finding it hard to call upon our prefrontal cortex to rationalize problems. Mainly due a lack of training or understanding of both all the problems and ourselves. And the harder we find it to pull away from this all, we fall into a vicious cycle that the more stress we encounter, the more we are prone to (un)welcome more stress into our lives, and the less we are likely to properly deal with it.
There’s no one correct answer for any of these problems. The easiest (and slowest) would be to evolve into new ways of dealing with our modern stresses. However, it is likely that by the time we are physiologically adapted, our lives have changed dramatically and these “new” response mechanism would be again obsolete.
One could argue that loosening up to stress-triggers could make one more tranquil and relaxed, but could potentially have you catalogued as careless and apathetic and end up making you un-relatable and likely to be marginalized — and as we established we need of communities to survive.
The most likely answer is to be knowledgable of stress inducing threats in your life, be trained and prepared to embrace the threats as they appear, call upon our prefrontal cortex and deal with them the “human” way — through reason, judgement, morale, ethics, and predicting possible outcomes and selecting the one that is more likely to be beneficial for you. The techniques may vary and have different effects on different people; so exercise, do yoga, call a friend, go for a walk, talk to a professional, be conscious about your habits, mind what you eat, do whatever helps you stay sane; and know that whatever stress you might be feeling is natural. Your body has been preparing to deal with it for thousands of years, trust it.