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Stress 101 part 1: Why we have stress

Businessman at a pdoium feeling performance stress
Tags: Stress

There's good stress and bad stress. Good stress is called Eustress and bad stress is called Dystress. We need Eustress to give us purpose, vitality and spark. It helps us to enjoy life and keep us motivated. It's the Dystress, or bad stress, that is the problem.

Our survival brain reacts to a stressor in the same way today as it did when we were tribal hunter/gatherers, when there were very big things to Dystress about; there really was a tiger or a bear in the mouth of the cave – the fire had gone out – the strange tribe was coming over the hill – you get my meaning. Otherwise our ancient ancestors were pretty much in a state of Eustress. Life was simple. Problems were few.

This is not the case today. In Western society we exist in a seething cauldron of stress; financial stress, job stress, relationship stress.

There's travel stress (our inner caveperson must be in a state of panic hurtling down the freeway at 100 kilometres an hour or flying in a plane 30 thousand feet above the earth) – and yet on a rational level we mostly take these things for granted; on top of that there is the adjustment to suddenly being In a totally different place and environment – another thing we think we should just 'get over' (although we at least do believe in jet lag).

Our ancient ancestors were travellers, but it took them a very long time to get to their destination, with plenty of time to adapt along the way.

There is also the stress of ill health; our ancient ancestors would have either recovered or died –not been subjected to a very long life full of invasive medical treatment often away from family and friends. Life was short but lived to the full and mostly in the present moment. Being unwell was very stressful for them.

Our stress mechanism is therefore primitive – it is in the limbic system or emotional brain. This sends out the signals to produce stress via two small almond-shaped glands about the size of your little fingernails called the amygdala. It is helpful to think of it as the survival brain (I also call it BOB or Back of Brain). It does not communicate very well with our smart brain (those big frontal lobes) and sometimes can cut off rational thought when it perceives we are in danger. BOB does not want you to think about the tiger when it is about to jump on you – it wants you to get out of the way!

Our survival brain belongs to our inner caveperson – our primal, natural self and it would serve us well to remember that it constantly over-reacts to things we take for granted. For example:

'My boss is a bully and I hate him (or her)'

BOB/Survival brain:
'My boss is a tiger and it's going to jump on me – either right now – or it's out in the grass somewhere waiting to pounce. I must get us ready to fight or run'

Whether the threat is right now – or immanent – your survival brain is going to get you ready to fight or run away (the fight or flight syndrome).

There is a third F – freeze. It shuts us down so we either can't move (literally), or we faint.

In any of these scenarios, the brain tells the body to produce adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline ramps up our Sympathetic nervous system making our heart beat faster, upping our blood pressure and making us sweat (to cool us down) and breathe faster (more oxygen for all that running and fighting).

Cortisol works to release energy from our body – again to do the above – but if cortisol levels don't return to normal (that is after we are safe from the tiger) – they linger and do damage.

Norepinephrine is a back-up hormone to adrenaline – it helps the 'sparky' good part of stress by motivating us and is often included in anti-depressants now for that reason – but in too large amounts it can cause fatigue, muscle tension and cramps, irritability and 'edginess'.

We have stress to help us survive but too much – and we're constantly just surviving – in a high state of arousal that is very corrosive to the body, brain and mind.

Dystress makes us very reactive (as opposed to responsive) and evokes primal reactions like aggression, territoriality, and brutality. Mediating our stress reaction might be the most important task of humanity.

What makes us susceptible to crippling levels of Dystress? Is it nature (genetic/inheritable/personality type) or nurture (our upbringing/schooling etc)?

The answer is a bit of everything. For example, apart from any genetic pre-disposition or personality (nature) – environmental factors are at play. It has been observed that when pregnant mothers experience excessive levels of Dystress, it can affect the unborn child, who arrives already pre-disposed to having a highly sensitive survival mechanism.

Deprivation, abuse or trauma during childhood (including bullying) is definitely a factor (nurture).

Our extremely stressful society is a factor.

Very often we get along quite well until there is a trigger (a relationship breakdown, work/school stress etc.) and we are in trouble.

We need to address the problem of stress as a species – but in the meantime, we can take responsibility for our own stress; try to understand it and manage it as best we can.

Next time: What does stress do to our body, brain and mind?

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