Post No.: 0386
A little bit of stress is beneficial for optimum performance but too much at once, or any amount for too long, will have a drastic negative effect, not just on one’s performance but on one’s health. Chronic (long-lasting) stress or pain is generally worse than acute (short-lasting) stress or pain, even if the acute stress or pain is relatively more severe or intense. Chronic stress can creep up on us so gradually and unsuspectingly, and the compounding problem is that when under stress, we’re least able to learn, adapt, change, open ourselves to new possibilities and we least want to be around other people – some of the things that’ll help us to break out of it. There’s therefore a vicious cycle to stress.
Stress (sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dominance) depresses our immune system and robs resources from our brain. It makes us more tunnel-visioned, likely to stick to the same path or habits we’re on or doing, closed to new ideas, self-centred and more likely to make rash decisions. We’re not able to easily parse reason whilst in a stressful state of mind – so if two parties are angry with each other, they both need to calm down first before expecting anyone to have a discussion or resolution based on reason.
Stress leads us to become more tunnel-visioned due to the instinct for self-preservation, but this very survival instinct can lead to us being more selfish and merely ‘looking after number one’. We do absolutely need self-care but we’ll prioritise the short-term over the long-term, and the narrow self over the wider group, which may mean ignoring peaceful and productive solutions that serve broader and longer-term interests. This happens on an individual and collective scale. For instance, after a financial crisis, more people feel insecure with their jobs and are therefore feeling more chronically stressed, so more people look towards nationalism and protectionism rather than international cooperation, as if each country needs to put itself first (e.g. Brexit or ‘America First’ policies). That’s until/unless things get better again and people feel okay sharing once more because there’s plenty to go around, or if things get truly bad because groups will then begin to understand that they need to open up and cooperate more to get out of trouble (e.g. China opening up to foreign trade and investment in the late 1970s).
One will have a diminished mental capacity for tending to others since one is too busy tending to oneself for the sake of prioritising one’s own protection and survival under the stress and (perceived) threats. Nearly all of us ought to be able to recognise how irritable and inconsiderate we can be towards others when we’re very stressed – such as because of sleep deprivation – when we’re usually kinder people when we’re not as tired or otherwise stressed. The difference is like being Dr Jekyll versus Mr Hyde!
That means that when we’re grumpy, stressed, burned out or otherwise in a bad mood, we become more narrow-minded, self-focused, un-empathic, more spiteful, less caring and even more biased than usual, which can all again lead to a vicious cycle because other people will reciprocally treat us accordingly (e.g. if you’ve had a bad day and you cease to care that your partner had a possibly worse day). So our moods can be contagious around other people too.
People who can handle stress better are thus those who have greater mental capacities, are more trained/experienced at doing a particular task at hand and/or have better stress management practices. So heroic or kinder people arguably simply cope with pressure better than the average person – they have enough mental capacity under the circumstances to still be able to think of others and even put others first. And those who are most self-focused are arguably the most poor under pressure; which might create a potential ‘stress and greed’ cycle too, where the stress of material insecurity (or perceived insecurity because some people with a lot still don’t feel like they have enough) leads some into careers of greed, which are often high-pressured careers, which induces even more stress and so on for those people in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Ultra-competitive and egotistical types operating in a constantly stressful environment therefore risk being the most tunnel-visioned, rash, self-centred, antisocial, uncaring, least able to work well in a team, least creative and least clearly rational and able to efficiently cognitively function of them all – even though these types of people are usually most attracted to where the money and/or power is. People can earn a lot yet not be overly stressed in their work and life though, and they’re the ones who get their priorities, goals and life balance right.
Unlike the genuine life-threatening stressors that human ancestors felt and animals in the wild today feel – modern life is stressful mainly due to psycho-social stressors that people are smart enough to have invented but dumb enough to fall for! A lack of control, of predictability (e.g. of when something’s about to happen or for how long), of outlets, a feeling that things are getting worse, social comparisons, insecurities about our public image and/or a lack of deep and meaningful social affiliations are things (or perceived things) that can bring about stress in the modern world.
We typically make the worst decisions when under stress. So only make important decisions when calm. Understand that when in a hot, stressed, angry, desperate, roused, pent-up or panicky state, you cannot think as clearly or as long-term rationally as when you’re more relaxed. It’s difficult to tell yourself to not say or do anything stupid whilst in a ‘hot’ state, but the ‘fight or flight’ (or ‘fight, flight, freeze or fawn’) state evolved to try to give your body all you’ve got to survive in a true physical fight-or-flight situation, which makes you think in the heat of the moment for the short or immediate-term only – because, well, in a genuine life-threatening situation there’ll be no long-term to consider if you don’t see the next few moments through.
But very few situations in modern life are genuinely life-threatening situations that demand a hasty decision. The ‘fight or flight’ response was only meant to be short-lived each time – enough to escape a deadly predator or other lethal threat – but modern life can keep it more-or-less switched on all of the time because of constant deadlines, competition, keeping up appearances, debt problems, material desires and more. It’s draining. So try to battle your instincts to, for instance, escalate arguments or continue through your pains, and take a couple of moments to calm down and listen to your body before saying or doing something you might regret in the long-term. (Battling other instincts that don’t necessarily involve stress but also don’t suit the modern human world include the temptation to cheat with another person or storing calories as if preparing for an upcoming famine.) They are incredibly strong instincts though, as expected for those related to an organism’s immediate survival – but the modern world has moved on far faster than genetic instincts have been able to concurrently keep up. Being drunk, drugged or drowsy will also affect one’s cognitive abilities and decision-making.
Now although one should make every important decision when in a calm fluffy state if possible – so regarding any decision that doesn’t need a literally immediate answer – one still needs to be aware that biases like fallacious reasoning or justifications can still jeopardise a decision i.e. being calm and not mentally overloaded is recommended but not sufficient alone to make a properly weighed-out and rational decision. Also, sometimes one cannot know what the best decision is until/unless one jumps in so don’t be paralysed by over-analysis.
It’s also not only stress that can affect big decisions but other feelings can too, for better or worse – gratitude can help us delay gratification (e.g. affect what pension plan we choose), while sadness can conversely lead to impatience. Momentary emotions can potentially affect decisions that’ll have lasting effects – so take stock of your current emotions before making any important lasting decision. It’s not just one’s personality – situational factors play a major role in decision-making too (e.g. the tendency to rely on our intuitions or not is only partly driven by our individual personalities – merely being made to feel powerful or being reminded of a time when we were powerful can (perhaps dangerously) increase our apparent trust in our own intuitions). Contexts can change things (e.g. you might genuinely not care about some competition before it starts, but if you were just about to miss out on winning by a fraction of a point then you might start to seriously care!)
When we’re calm (parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) dominance), we are most creative, we tend to make better decisions for the long-term, our body is most able to heal and defend itself, and we feel most happy and playful. (It’s often called the ‘rest and digest’ state.) Mindfulness, hope, compassion and playfulness are therefore not only good for our health but good for our relationships. Relationships, motivation and rational persuasion improve when we try to keep everyone else in a calmer state too.
Calm-inducing activities include meditation, moderate exercise or post-exercise recovery, having stroke-able pets, being in a loving relationship, thinking and talking with others about a future dream, being hopeful about the future, and playing and laughing with others. Both the giver and receiver of love, gratitude, compassion and hope feel a beneficial activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Volunteering and helping those less fortunate than us is also good for reducing stress because this activity might put our own concerns and stresses into perspective, take our minds off our stresses for a while, and make us feel like we can and do have a positive effect on others. Companionships and knowledge are our best defences.
And because temporary or acute stresses, including relatively intense ones, are okay and are sometimes even healthy or fun for us – activities like exercise, rollercoaster rides and playing games of any kind are worth seeking now and again. Some people really like hot chillies in their food for the temporary rush they get!
Our stress management must be regular, just like physical exercise and sleep i.e. not just saved up for the weekends. And it’s personal, so what’s relaxing for one person may not be for another (e.g. some like to watch comedies, some like to cuddle a cat – meow). Different things may make different people feel happy, yet happiness is still a universal goal for everyone.
Because most of us get enough stress in our lives – our aim for better health and happiness should be to try to reduce our stress levels and keep in a positive emotional state. We feel and remember negative emotions more strongly than positive ones, so we need roughly 5x as much time in a positive state of mind to counteract every 1x negative event or emotion. The good news is that how we feel in life is ultimately a state of mind, thus because most stresses in the modern world aren’t truly life-threatening – even though they make us physiologically react to them as if they are – we should try to put them into better perspective. Try to turn negatives into positives with a change of perspective.
One can be smart but not smart enough unless one feels happy, healthy and calm whenever one’s life is not in any genuine mortal danger. We need negative emotions to survive (e.g. fear and stress in order to warn and protect ourselves from threats) but we need positive emotions to thrive. So focus on the possibilities. Always try to look on the bright side of life. We should not ignore genuine short or long-term threats or dangers hence we should take some things seriously – but don’t take yourself too seriously!
Said a little blue and white cat, apparently…