Our reptilian stress response in our world today

Our stress response system is located in our reptilian brain; the same system our hunter-gatherer ancestors had when their brain-body connection adjusted to give them the speed, strength and stamina to fight for their lives or run away from ferocious animals. So, how do these two ancient systems work for us in our world today?

We live in an unstable technological world in which our lives are full to the brim. Most of us struggle to achieve a good work, home and play balance. The pace of life has quickened, we use technology to ensure we work quickly and efficiently. To keep on top of everything, we constantly check our mobile phones; emails, texts, Messenger, Telegram, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Meta etc; checking to see who is contacting us, to shop, watch TV, films and nowadays, more than ever before, to find news we can trust. They practically control our lives.

These technologies were invented to make our lives easier but instead they complicate our lives to the point of chronic stress response, psychological illnesses and burnout.

While the digital world keeps our minds and bodies on constant high alert, lack of adequate healthcare systems, changes in educational curriculums, housing deficits, wars, economic recessions and political systems that mostly don’t meet the grade, can all create existential fears for us; a feeling of unease, worry about future events leading to anxiety and depression – if we allow it.

The sole purpose of our reptilian brain is to keep us safe and alive. It does not like change; it does not feel safe in a world of constant change, threats and instability; our ferocious wild animals constantly overloading our stress response system. So, what do we do instead of fighting and running (fight or flight)?

In his book The Happiness Trap (2007), Dr. Russ Harris MD, Psychotherapist, and the world’s leading expert on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy tells us: “Our version of running or fighting today is to verbally attack in the form of insults and disrespect, so we feel we can defend our position and our dignity. The problem is our fight response instantly turns into anger, or its close relatives; argumentative behaviour, frustration, irritation, resentment and rage; and our flight response instantly turns into fear, or its close relatives; anxiety, nerves, doubt, insecurity, panic, social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing; and usually we experience both fight and flight emotions at the same time.

If the source of our stressor is a loss, we will also feel sadness and sorrow, and if we believe we have somehow contributed to the stressful event or situation, guilt will play a part in our distress. While these are all normal human emotions which we are wired to express, unfortunately they are not always well placed in our environment today and can cause enormous damage to our physical and psychological health.”

So, there we have it, our way of fighting and running is to verbally attack; insult and disrespect. These forms of attacks are loaded with layers of emotions that activate stress hormones and drive our psychological state of mind. Can you see the circle of stressors here?

Let’s get a better understanding of what stressors and stress response are according to The Transactional Model of Stress, given to us in the 1970s and 80s by my two favourite professors, Professor Richard Lazarus and Professor Susan Folkman from the University of California. This important model of stress defines what a stressor and stress response is and gives us a better grip on what we are dealing with.

Lazarus and Folkman told us: a stressor is “a stimulus (provocation) from our external or internal environment. A transaction between us and our environment; basically, an event, situation or person putting excessive pressure and demands on us to perform”.

Dr. Russ Harris (same book) tells us: “Our stressors today are any physical, psychological or social pressures and demands that put real or perceived pressures and demands on our bodies, emotions, minds or spirits. These real or perceived physical, psychological or social forces trigger a stress response from and within us when we feel threatened on any level.”

In his book Emotions Revealed, Understanding Faces and Feelings, Dr Paul Ekman adds: “Our perception of a stressor is based on our temperament, personality, past experiences, education and, most importantly, our coping skills, or lack of coping skills. It’s our lack of coping skills that makes any event, person or situation stressful for us. It’s our perception through thoughts, feelings and emotions at the moment of decision making that is the critical factor. In other words, it’s our psychological state of mind at the moment of decision making that is critical. The effect the stressor has on us is based more on our feeling of threat, vulnerability and ability to cope than on the stressor itself.”

Lazarus: “Stress is the adverse individual responses to excessive pressures and demands from the environment.” Here there is no doubt he is talking about our physiological, biological, psychological and mostly undesirable behavioural stress response.

He added: “A good person-environment fit results in a low amount or no stressors and a poor person-environment fit results in high levels of chronic stressors.” Lazarus used ‘stress’ for both the stressor and stress response; nowadays, stress language is less confusing.

We must examine our environments – home, workplace, relationships – when we assess our stressors and search for coping strategies. Most important is our state of mind at the moment we decide something or someone is a stressor. It’s not the stressor that causes most of the damage, it’s how we cope with the stressor that causes the most damage. We can adjust our psychological state of mind.

Change is unavoidable; lucky for us we can adapt. We can learn to calm our reptilian stress response simply by activating our parasympathetic (nervous system) when we feel overwhelmed.

 By Joan Maycock

Joan Maycock MSc Health Psychologist, BSc Psychologist, Counsellor Mediator, Consultant, Researcher, Trainer and Stress and Burnout Programme Developer. After living in the Netherlands, I moved to Portugal last year. My focus is on developing stress education programmes designed to get everyone thinking about reducing, preventing and managing stress and burnout.

915 793 592 | [email protected]