2 Strategies for Stress Response
Stress-related diseases claim the lives of millions of people every year. And the number is, unfortunately, only going up.
And for every person who dies because of chronic stress, there are many more who suffer and can’t enjoy their lives to the fullest.
Stress in itself is not going to make your heart fail. It’s our stress response systems that have the potential to do a lot of long-term damage. One important thing to note is that stress response systems are perfectly tuned for short-term activation (e.g. running away from a stressor) but were not built for being activated continuously and in absence of physical activity. This is why continuous worrying combined with the lack of bursts of physical activity can make you sick.
Bottom line at this point:
Worry less, Run more.
The details of how we respond to stress are even more interesting and add a second layer of complexity to the picture.
Broadly speaking, scientists have so far identified two major “strategies” for stress-response that humans employ:
- Fight or Flight (Walter Cannon)
- Tend and Befriend (Shelley Taylor)
Fight-or-flight, as the name suggests, assumes that you will either have to fight with the stressor (e.g. predator) or run away from it as fast as you can. Both require your muscles and heart to work harder, pain to feel less painful etc. This makes a lot of sense for the short-term, but if youturn this mode on too often or for too long, then your heart and associated systems start to wear out.
Tend and befriend, on the opposite, assumes that in order for you and your offspring to survive the stressor you need to hug your loved ones, tell them everything is going to be all right, and then try to cooperate with others so that you can all survive together. This also makes a lot of sense and while it may be less efficient in case you are alone and the lion is hunting you down it may be way more efficient in a lot of other circumstances.
The most wonderful thing is that - we all have capacity for both strategies. It’s true that there is a statistically significant gender difference: men are much more likely to rely on fight-or-flight and women on tend-and-befriend. But in reality both men and women show ability to do both.
We can combine two strategies, alterate between them depending on the circumstances and so on. Too much of any of the response strategies is probably not good, but a little bit of everything can depending on the circumstances, I believe, help us cope better with the modern kind of stress (we don’t run away from predators too often, but instead worry about our economy while on a couch too much).
When in trouble (especially if you happen to be a male) double check if fight-or-flight is the right way to respond, or may be a little bit of tend-and-befriend is going to work better.
We are just scratching the surface and vastly oversimplifying here.
For much more details please check Robert Sapolsky’s excellent book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.
And his Stanford Course on Human Behavioral Biology (available on Youtube) will totally blow your mind.
Editable version of this OneSlide is available as a Google Slides and you can print it from there as well: