Why in our time long-term, chronic stress has become such a problem? What makes people eat a lot of sweets, use alcohol and drugs? Why is there so little sex in family life, and relaxation is given to us with such difficulty? The bad news: this is the world in which we live. Good: we are not guilty of this, and we can even do something.
People were not created to immediately live in the conditions of the XXI century. However, we perfectly adapted, but it came at a high price.
In the past, it seemed quite natural when people lived in large family groups, small villages of a hundred (or so) people. Life was predictable. In the community, people knew each other well, and the appearance of a casual traveler or a fair in a nearby village was a big event. Anyone knew who he would be when he grew up, as people, as a rule, continued the work of their fathers and mothers. They went to bed at nightfall and got up at dawn.
Thousands of years of such a life shaped our brain and its reaction to stress. In ancient times, too, there were stresses: hunger, robbery, illness, injury. Most people have not experienced 35 years, which means that the human body did not have time to adapt to the effects of prolonged stress. We react very well to stress while young, but our response system was not designed for a longer period of life.
Rabbit in a cage, and dogs all around
Under stress, the fear center in the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce hormones, mainly adrenaline and cortisol, and we are ready to run or fight. “Beat or Run” – all body systems are involved in this reaction: nervous and endocrine, as well as muscular, circulatory, digestive, sensory, and even reproductive.
Imagine a rabbit driven by a dog. The rabbit’s nervous and endocrine systems send electrical and chemical signals to the body, increasing heart rate, redirecting energy to the muscular and sensory systems, cutting off the food and reproduction, sending immune cells to the store, triggering steroids that heal wounds. In the body of an animal, everything is oriented towards an effective response in a danger situation.
As soon as the rabbit is safe, all systems return to normal operation. Another area of the brain sends a signal to “calm down.” The heart rate slows down, and the animal can again return to such interests as food, sex, and convenience — all of this was relegated to the background at the moment of danger.
Now imagine that the rabbit is in a cage surrounded by hungry dogs. If the stress response does not stop, the brain and endocrine system of the animal will continue to produce substances associated with strong arousal. Ultimately, this will lead to negative consequences in all systems. The animal is no longer able to eat and may die of hunger. His immune system is undermined and he becomes vulnerable to infections. He has the instinct of reproduction fading away (under chronic stress in the rabbit colonies the birth rate catastrophically decreases).
We have exactly the same stress response system as in rabbits, dogs, cats – in all mammals. Like them, we are not adapted to chronic stress. When cells of the body are exposed to a large number of stress hormones, they close their receptors and go into a state of self-defense.
However, this endocrine system begins to produce even more hormones. Our immunity, muscles, bones, gastrointestinal system and heart begin to deplete. The brain also begins to rebuild under the influence of stress, the nerve pathways are limited by the trajectory, and we are literally incapable of thinking about new solutions, incapable of a creative way out.
In the end, the brain is seriously damaged. If you look at a CT scan of the brain of people suffering from chronic stress, you will see large white gaps where there is usually brain tissue.
Why are we in a state of chronic stress?
Humanity in the XXI century is in a state of permanent stress due to the following fundamental changes.
Too much stimulation. We are attacked by the flow of information: from television, the Internet, our mobile phones, magazines and newspapers. We constantly make choices and make decisions (and decision making drains willpower). We have to use phones, computers and other electronics to get new knowledge and make the best decision, and nevertheless, no matter what we do, after a month everything will become obsolete.
We live in artificial light, heating and cooling, and this allows us to work longer. Many of us meet strangers every day, and the brain unconsciously draws conclusions about them – they are dangerous or safe. Life constantly puts in a situation of important choice, without providing enough information.
Insufficient security. Life is unpredictable. Work, home, family, sex, patriotism, freedom – over the past decades these concepts have radically changed. Previously, it was customary to live surrounded by relatives and friends, but now it has become the norm to travel thousands of miles in search of work. The family is under tremendous pressure to preserve the former patriarchal structure.
The crisis of the meaning of life. We used to believe that if a person lives a righteous life, then God will reward him and send him to heaven. Now we really do not know why live a righteous life, even if we can not understand what it means. We are all faced with the difficult task of giving meaning to our lives, despite the relentless expectation of the inevitable end.
The fact is that modern life is generally not suitable for us, but we are so hypnotized by advertising, purchasing and mass information that we cease to see this most important fact.
All this is not our fault, but we can do something
The stress of the 21st century damages both our body and our mind, and modern culture not only does not offer solutions, but also adds problems. We can give long hours unloved work, but the labor market is such that the place to change is scary. Our partner also works, and there is almost no time left for the family. Children get in trouble at school: maybe they smoke or lead a more active personal life than we would like. And there is almost no possibility to really change something, since these are systemic social problems. We really burned out. What to do?
Acknowledging the challenges, we are already winning half the battle. When we are under the influence of stress and depressed, then most often willing to assume that everything happens through our fault. I hope I managed to convince you that in the modern world everyone is equally threatened with burnout and this is normal. So do not punish yourself for it.
The rest of the battle is about how to manage stress effectively. We do not have a congenital reaction to chronic stress, and the “involuntary self” program does not work in this case, which means we need to wise up. Indeed, life is too full of stress, and the reaction to our “involuntary self” often leads to self-destructive consequences. But you can teach your “conscious self” to work in one direction with the “involuntary.”