Of stress and all those many goals

The biology of overworked people

Although it is true that much of what I write is about making sense of things that occupy space in my mind (in fact, writing serves to declutter and to free up valuable space), I get extremely excited when the topic is thrown at me from the outside. Therefore, when on the subject of this very blog one of my colleagues asked whether I had ever written about stress – or what he called ‘the biology of overworked people’ – I instantly knew I would accept the challenge and start typing away.

Being familiar with the type of stress he was referring to, I did not ask for further details, and assumed his interest was to hear about solutions to stress in the modern workplace. The reference to modern is not coincidental, as it is nearly always necessary to make the distinction between the modern and the ancestral environment, affectionately also known as the Stone Age. This is where, unlike the social and mental threats of today, our ancestors were mostly facing physical stresses from the very harsh conditions of nature and all its predators.

What stress is all about

First things first. Let’s understand what stress is all about. Put simply, when the demands that are being imposed on an individual are greater than his ability to meet them, the famous stress response is activated. Although we are used to thinking that the pressures are coming from our environment, most often, stress is much more personal; it is a product of our own making, resulting from our tendency to commit ourselves to goals that may be too many and too high to achieve. Being agreeable and attentive to the needs of others does not help. And neither does being conscientious, because you will keep on pushing to do the right thing, even when things go wrong, as they obviously sometimes do. And if you’re not feeling the pressure well enough yet, add the one factor that sits heavily on everything and everyone in all seasons: time. You probably get it by now.

We may understand the how, but we are not empowered to cope still less able to build resilience to stressful situations unless we also get the why. In other words, why is stress ignited in some situations more than others? If stress is a system that has not only evolved in the distant past, but also persists in the modern age, then we might assume it has some kind of utility. And notwithstanding the suffering, discomfort and distress that it brings, stress is a valuable biological adaptation designed to give us advantage.  

To take opportunities, and to avoid those threats

The real question is not how we can combat stress, by engaging in activities that distract our attention, such as physical exercise, leisure or entertainment, but in learning which are those situations where stress proves useful. There are two main worlds where these situations belong: that of opportunities and threats. The stress response system is designed to adjust our behaviour and our physiological functioning so that in these situations we are motivated to prioritise our energy to those cases where the benefits are going to be greater than the costs.

The fragmentation that makes it worse

If our world consisted of just one chamber, where we could dedicate our effort to one task, we would be telling a different story. A narrative with a single goal. The world surrounding the individual today is, unfortunately, much larger and much more complicated than this, a phenomenon that evolutionary psychologist Dr Doug Lisle calls the ‘fractured village’. This is the idea that we are not only intent on achieving a number of different goals, in different ambits, we are also serving or relating to different people. These people cannot see what is on your plate. Your head of department, your spouse, your children, the president of the organisation where you volunteer, your friend, your students, your parents, and all those other people who expect something from you, do not speak to each other to agree on how best to partition your time, and you are the only one with all the lists of things that you feel compelled to do, as well as the conflict of what to choose.

Of course, there is so much more to the nature of stress than what these small bites for appetite can bring, such as, for example, a deeper understanding of the situations in which stress is useful, the cost-benefit trade-offs, the concept of the biological sensitivity to context, and that of resilience, and how they all fit together to help us make sense of something that, despite its utility, can be quite damaging and painful. It is also interesting to know (or perhaps I find it rather interesting) that men tend to feel more stressed than women in achievement- and status-related tasks, whereas women react with more stress in situations where social failure is a risk. There is also evidence that shows that mothers who are exposed to stressful environments give birth to offspring with a highly responsive stress system and this may help explain the relationship between early abuse and increased vulnerability to stress.

In search of solutions, with problems in mind

For the time being, the most powerful message we can take is that, in our custom search for solutions in the modern world (where the modern workplace also belongs) we need to be careful enough to make the distinction between the real system that offers defense, in this case, the stress response system, as it guards us against harm, but also against the possibility of losing out on a valid opportunity; the problems that it creates, or what may be seen as the defects of a system designed through tampering rather than through solid engineering; and the problems that stress itself is trying to solve, as it guides and reminds us of the need to correct for the mismatch between what we desire and what we can have.

With this thought in mind, I guess we can all agree that the best advice is to sit down and shrink that list.

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