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Diplomacy in Action

Understanding Stress


Did you hear that?

Shh, there are saber-toothed tigers in the neighborhood. Our heart starts beating faster and our palms start to sweat. We freeze seemingly unable to move. Should we fight or flee?

There had been saber-toothed tigers in the neighborhood for a long time. Well, not that long actually if you consider time since the beginning of our universe - (four + or - billion years ago) and the much shorter history of life on our earth (about one billion years) and the comparatively very brief history of humankind (six or seven million years).

In July, 2002, fossil evidence was discovered in Chad in Central Africa that may be the oldest known hominid or near hominid species. This fossil skull is considered to be between 6 and 7 million years old. Although the time spans for Neanderthals and Homosapiens have been extended back beyond most accepted fossil limits to accommodate the most recent genetic evidence, the divergence between Neanderthal and human lines begins around 500,000 years ago. If you believed that our early ancestors began to evolve 500,000 years ago, and if you consider that a human generation might average at about 20 years, we could then calculate that there would have been 25,000 generations of human kind. Most people would easily agree that human beings who looked like us have been around for at least 60,000 years. Using that number of 60,000 years of human kind and 20 years per generation, we could extrapolate that there have been only about 3,000 generations of human kind that looked like us. Most remarkably it is only for the last 300 generations that we have lived outside of the cave (about 6,000 years). Books and the printed word have been available for a mere 30 generations (600 years), and electricity has been available to a limited few for only five generations (100 years). Computer technology has been available for less than three generations, and computers have been available in schools for only 1 generation.

                    Years Ago                    # of Generations                              Event
                                                       (20 years/generation)
               6-7 Million Years                     350,000                        First Hominid Skull dated
                     500,000                                25,000                         Humans diverge from Neanderthal lines
                       60,000                                  3,000                          Human beings looked like us
                        6,000                                      300                          People moved out of caves
                        2,000                                      100                          Christ was born and died
                          600                                         30                           Printing Press was invented
                          500                                         25                           Columbus sails to the Americas
                          100                                          5                            Edison experiments with electricity
                            60                                          3                             Computers are invented
                            10                                        <1                             Computers in schools 

Saber-toothed tigers went extinct about 11,000 years ago around the last ice age, but stress has been with us since before the beginning of human development.

 Stress was there in Chad in Central Africa six or seven million years ago.

 Stress was there when Neanderthal and our early human ancestors competed for survival; and stress is still here with us today.

 • Stress has been always present since before the beginning of our human evolution. But it is only the last two generations, that we have begun to explore and to try to understand the necessity of stress, the positive effects of stress, and the consequence of unmanaged or negative stress.

 • Stress is omnipresent. Stress is neither good nor bad. Stress just is.

 • Stress is present in the womb before birth. There is only one time in our lives when we will be absent from stress and that brief moment will be during the last moment of life at death.

It is the stress of the build up of carbon dioxide that causes us to breathe. It is the stress of low blood sugar that causes hunger and inspires us to eat. It is the stress of emotion that causes our hearts to race when we feel love or fear. Stress is necessary, and important. Without stress there would be no great performances in athletics, on stage, or in our lives. Without stress there would be no life itself.

Medical experts tell us that unresolved, negative stress is a major contributor to all forms of disease. In the example of Laurie earlier in the book we learned that stress can even cause physical illness like fevers.

Without the appropriate management of stress we can expect to see more than 75% of illness directly related to that stress. Without improving our management of stress, heart disease will be a major killer of adults. Without more attention to the appropriate management of stress we will see an increase in suicide, gastrointestinal illness, diabetes, cancers and Wait! That is exactly what we do have. We don't manage stress. We do not practice appropriate strategies for management of stress. As adults, we are bad at stress management, and we are bad at modeling stress management for our children. They learn bad stress management from us! Most of the difficulties in our poor management of stress can be squarely placed on the cave step of our prehistoric ancestors. For our physiological responses to stress were deeply engrained in our ancestors hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and thousands of generations ago. Our response to stress in this, the third millennium of the modern era, was based on necessary survival tactics applicable more than 60,000 years ago.

The strategies of our pre cave ancestors are no longer appropriate or necessary today. Worse still, we as a culture, as a society, and as individuals do poorly at managing stress. As parents and teachers we know our children and students learn from our example. We model, they imitate. We are teaching the skills and practice that will continue to leave a legacy of unnecessary disease and illness, a legacy of poorly managed relationships and communications, a legacy of unnecessary pain and suffering.

When human beings evolved into an increasingly complex organism, many traits were necessary to improve the probability of our survival as a species. This may have been good for the species. But, alas, nature is a cruel master concerned not about the individual but only about survival of the species. Many of the traits that would help to ensure that our genes and species would live another day predestined many of us as individuals to live many days less. What guaranteed the success of us as a species threatens us as individuals. The fight or flight response that helped us to fight off those tigers is no longer appropriate today for us or our children. But the response is still there because much of our physiological response to stress is genetic. Today's saber-tooth tigers are things such as writing assignments, public speaking, pressures to achieve, and things that will trigger the same response.

We have to learn to apply our knowledge and our experience to our continuing evolution. We must find ways to manage stress to assure us of healthy and fulfilled lives. With some difficulty and challenge, we can live and respond to "saber-tooth tigers" in our lives better than our ancestors did. Who knows we may even grow to become "the fittest to survive"? No apologies are due to Darwin!

To improve individual survival we must learn to not insist on responding to modern day stressors with prehistoric responses. We can read. We can reason. We can alter our response. Perhaps, we should begin by understanding what the physiological response to stress looks like.

Thousands of generations ago we were both predator and prey. As predator, we adapted to see and hear prey. As prey we adapted to avoid predators. Both adaptations developed to improve our survival as a species. Many of our physiological responses were programmed in us to help us prepare to fight or to flee. An instantaneous dumping of complex hormones and chemicals into the blood stream by the brain and the endocrine system at the first sign of trouble allowed the heart to beat more quickly, the muscles to prepare for action, the nose to smell, the ears to hear. This nearly instant response to the growl of a predator or the scent of prey allowed us to prepare for impending action. We could run to escape or run to catch. We could run faster. We did run faster. The rush of epinephrine or adrenalin into the brain allowed us to escape to avoid being eaten or enabled us to catch our lunch and be fed. (An alternative hypothesis is that you are not here reading this because your ancestors were eaten!) Either way, the epinephrine was used, and the body returned to a normal state of relative calm.

But today, thousands of generations from when this fight or flight type of response was necessary, when the brain experiences a stressor as simple as not completing a homework assignment, or being embarrassed in front of a friend, or not doing well on a test, the same hormonal response can occur. The stressor stimulates the brain causing epinephrine to be secreted by the adrenal glands. The heart beats faster. The blood pressure rises. We hear better and different sounds. We see with greater acuity. Our senses of taste and smell are heightened. Our muscles tense for action and every fiber of our body is poised and ready! We can run faster. But we don't.

Today, because there is no need to exert ourselves physically, we don't. The epinephrine and other stress hormones are not used as nature intended and as they were developed. Thus, the body does not return to a normal state of calm for a long time after the incident. Because the stress is not physically relieved it lingers. This heightened, elongated stress response repeated over a period of years results in an increase in health problems. Medical experts tell us that stress is a major contributor to all forms of disease. To repeat, without the appropriate management of stress we can expect to see more than 75% of all illness directly related to stress. Without the appropriate management of stress we will continue to have heart disease as a major killer of adults. Without the appropriate management of stress we will see an increase in suicide, gastrointestinal illness, diabetes, cancers and ....

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