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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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Link between stress and a mammoth

When you think of stress, is a mammoth the first thing that comes to mind? Probably not. Yet, if we consider evolution and the role our stress response system played in ensuring our survival as a species, then our choice of logo becomes clearer. What do you think it would take to bring down a 4-6 ton mammoth? Some obvious choices are: strength, energy, speed, endurance, focus, fearlessness, and some good planning!

Would it surprise you to know that our stress response system is behind most if not all of these requirements? The stress response is also known as the fight or flight response because when we are faced with stress or a threat, we can fight (bring down the mammoth) or flee (run away because the mammoth is too aggressive). So, what happens when we have a stress response?

Our senses sharpen such that our pupils dilate (become larger) so we can see more clearly, even in darkness, our hairs stand on end, making us more sensitive to our environment and also making us appear larger as to intimidate our opponent, remember we were much harrier back then!

The cardio-vascular system leaps into action, our heart rate increases so we can pump more blood to our muscles, our arteries constrict to increase blood pressure and our veins open up to ease the return of blood to the heart.

The respiratory system joins in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeds up to get more air in the system.

The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder and longer. We also breathe more deeply, which helps us to scream more loudly and sound threatening, the human equivalent of a roar!

Stored fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver are sent into the blood or metabolized to create instant energy. Blood vessels to the kidney and digestive system are constricted to shut down systems that are not essential. This is not a time to waste energy!

Blood vessels to the skin are constricted reducing potential blood loss in the case of injury. Sweat glands also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked system (this makes the skin look pale and clammy). Endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, are released because you don’t want to be bothered with pain while you are fighting. Our judgment system in the brain is also turned down so that more primitive responses take over, deep thought during this time could result in death–this is a time for action!

Lost in a Time-Warp

You may think that all of these biological events occurred only in prehistoric time, when we were chasing mammoths. Wrong. Your body basically does not know the difference between a mammoth and work-stress, so that in both situations, you have the same reactions. Basically, your body does not know that we are in 2011. Hence the choice of a mammoth as our logo to remind us of this important fact.

Was going on a mammoth hunt stressful? Absolutely! In fact, a situation like this is known as an absolute stressor. This means that absolutely anyone exposed to it would have a stress response. Other examples of absolute stressors are an earthquake, a tsunami, or the events of September 11th 2001. These are objective stressors that are universal.

You will likely agree that we are not faced with many absolute stressors in 2011. Yet, the World Health Organization has predicted that by 2020 stress-related disorders like heart disease and depression will be in the top two leading causes of disability in adults. Why?

These days, our body’s stress response system is activated just as much if not more than when we hunted mammoths. But there is a difference in what is activating it. Today we face more relative stressors. These are stressors that only some exposed to them would interpret as being stressful. As such, they are subjective stressors that cause different reactions in different people, like a short deadline at work, traffic, paying taxes, or writing an exam.

Why is it that time pressure makes some people N.U.T.S with stress while others do their best work? To make a cake we need some basic ingredients. But, there are endless possibilities in how we combine them, what brands we use, and what we add for flavor. The same applies for stress. There is a basic Recipe for Stress that is the same for everyone.

For a situation to be stressful and cause the release of stress hormones we must interpret it as containing one or more of the following; Novelty, Unpredictability, a Threat to the sense of self or ego, and decrease our Sense of control or N.U.T.S. What is novel to you is different from what is novel to John. This is why stress is highly personal.

Our lives today are filled with situations that we interpret as stressful or relative stressors. Our stress response system does not know the difference between an absolute and a relative stressor. In other words, it can’t tell whether we are facing a large wooly mammoth or a traffic jam; it releases the same stress hormones!

How is it that our highly sophisticated brain cannot tell time and not know that we are in 2011? Our brain can probably tell time but we are draining the batteries in the clock far too quickly. This is because our stress response system was not designed to be activated as often as it is these days. After all, we did not hunt mammoths every day. A good sized mammoth would provide food for our tribe for quite some time.

It is entirely appropriate for you brain to release stress hormones in the face of a charging mammoth; this is an absolute stressor and we need the energy. Traffic on the other hand is not life threatening, does not require energy expenditure, nor will it prevent you and your family from eating over the next month. It is a relative stressor.

For a system that was designed to only be activated on occasion, the constant demands we place on it due to our interpretations of situations as stressful are causing undue wear and tear which can lead to considerable health problems.

So, a mammoth as our logo reminds us of the difference between absolute stressors and relative stressors and that managing stress is within reach. Life has evolved to what it is today and as such we will never be able to eliminate all sources of stress, both absolute and relative. But we can learn to influence our interpretations in a way that will ultimately decrease the number of times our stress response system gets activated, decrease the amount of stress hormones we release and help us cope with stress.