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Thread: chronic stress vs. acute stress page

  1. #1
    BestBetter's Avatar
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    chronic stress vs. acute stress

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    We all know that chronic stress is just about the worst thing we can do to ourselves...according to Mark, "the stress response system was built to deal with infrequent, acute, highly stressful situations."

    So chronic stress is such a problem because it's a relatively new player, and our systems aren't very efficient at dealing with it.

    My question is this: wouldn't early humans have also had chronic stress?

    There's so much on intermittent fasting because that's what our ancestors likely did without choice due to food scarcity, not in 8/16 intervals or fast five windows, but actual 'I may not eat again for days, or possibly forever' scenarios...that sounds like a chronic stress to me. I don't imagine that life was very easy or safe back then.

    Why was that type of chronic stress better than what modern people are dealing with?

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    It's an interesting question. There are tons of folks here infinitely more knowledgeable than I on how early man lived. But I like questions that make me think, so here goes.

    Before the Nine to Five structure took over our lives, the stress of providing nutrition to ourselves and our children was probably stressful in some climates while being easy as pie in others. But either way, the stress was basically, "Find or kill enough to eat." Though food is plentiful and available now, what we have to do to get it is far from stress-free. We have to be educated enough to find the kind of work that will put food on our tables. Once we get that education, we have to put on a public facade that is acceptable to the PTB that have the jobs to give us. And once we have the job, we have to keep strict hours and compete with others to hold it. And being one's own boss can be even more stressful.

    Even getting to that job isn't a matter of taking the wife and kids out to forage, but is squishing in to public transit, or sharing the road with other stressed and tired drivers.

    We've also become hypercompetitive in almost everything we do. It's not enough to be a good provider; the 6-figure money mover garners more respect than the 5-figure college professor. It's not enough to be healthy; you have to look like a body builder or fashion model. It's not enough to get good grades; you also have to play soccer, cheer, etc. It's not enough to be pious; you have to show up at church every Sunday so the neighbors know you are. It's not enough to be clean and neat; you have to wear the "uniform" of your peers. Driving a certain kind of car gives you status.

    Ever changing technology can be stressful. Being bombarded by news and quasi news.

    All of these things are things that stress us if we let them. And that is chronic stress. It's much more than, "Crap, it's getting cold out, now I'm going to have to eat field mouse stew for two months." It's more internal, and it won't kill you from starvation, but it could be shredding you slowly both physically and emotionally.

    (All the "you"s above are generic "you"s and not aimed at the op.)
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    I think Joanie makes some good points, but perhaps we're looking at things outside-in instead of inside-out. There has always been stress, and there will always be stress - what the stress is has changed, but life without stress operates at room temperature instead of 37C/98.6F.

    What has changed is how we handle it - we don't let go any more. Yes, a group of HGs experiences stress, but when things are okay I suspect they let go - they don't worry all night about where the next kill will come from and whether my decorations are better than hers.

    Perhaps that's why meditation (especially TM) and yoga seems to help so many people (along with Tai Chi/Chi Gong) - part of the practice is letting go of outside thoughts.

    We are so used to multitasking that even when we relax, we're doing it in multiple ways and thus not really relaxing. One of my goals this year is to do less multitasking and focus more on one thing at a time, doing it well and then moving on.

    Just my thoughts, still developing ...

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    I highly recommend you read the terribly boring but super informative book Stone Age Economics to help clarify some of your misconceptions about the life of hunter-gatherers.

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    Quote Originally Posted by RichMahogany View Post
    I highly recommend you read the terribly boring but super informative book Stone Age Economics to help clarify some of your misconceptions about the life of hunter-gatherers.
    Thanks for the recommendation; I'll see if my library system has it. Were there any particularly interesting points relating to chronic stress during the stone age?

    Quote Originally Posted by JoanieL View Post
    We've also become hypercompetitive in almost everything we do. It's not enough to be a good provider; the 6-figure money mover garners more respect than the 5-figure college professor. It's not enough to be healthy; you have to look like a body builder or fashion model. It's not enough to get good grades; you also have to play soccer, cheer, etc. It's not enough to be pious; you have to show up at church every Sunday so the neighbors know you are. It's not enough to be clean and neat; you have to wear the "uniform" of your peers. Driving a certain kind of car gives you status.
    Joanie (and AnnLee) I enjoyed your responses, and I agree with them, but wouldn't there also have been chronic stress surrounding mating and hunting and childrearing way back when (even though yes, it would have been different, but chronic nonetheless)? And if the answer was that earlier humans were better at letting go, how did we as a species seem to forget how to do that?
    Last edited by BestBetter; 12-28-2012 at 02:30 PM.

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    I think you're making a couple of assumptions here. One is that H-Gs would routinely have faced starvation or famine; I think the ethnographic record of contemporary H-Gs belies this idea. The overwhelmingly common situation seems to be that H-Gs are typically supremely knowledgeable of their environments and highly skilled in exploiting a wide variety of food sources, both plant and animal, in a way that is robust to drought, flood, etc. So it is rare that these people actually go hungry in any kind of life-threatening way.

    Your second point, that life was likely not easy or safe generally, is of course true on its face. But hard work is not a stressor in the sense you are positing--the kind of "stress" we're talking about here is the kind that initiates an adrenal response. There is no reason to suppose that just because a typical hunter might need to walk 10 miles over rough terrain in pursuit of prey, for example, that this is causing a stress reaction. It's just routine physical exertion for someone who has grown up with this way of life--and it's probably less stressful in the psychological/adrenal stress than the typical office worker's morning commute, given that he's probably out hunting with lifelong friends, participating in a highly skilled and mentally engaging pursuit that his brain was evolved to handle, and which is therefore highly satisfying mentally and socially. As far as safety goes, two points: first, I doubt that paleolithic H. sapiens were in real danger from predators or environmental conditions very often. People like to talk about being "chased by saber-toothed cats", but I would guess it was more frequently the other way around--the tigers and wolves would have been in more danger from the humans, with their spears and bows and knives, than the reverse. Which is not to say that humans were never prey, of course--I'm sure it happened from time to time, especially if one was caught alone in the dark, or otherwise injured or incapacitated--but I seriously doubt that Joe H. Gatherer spent his life in habitual fear of predators. The rare, truly dangerous encounters would indeed have caused a significant adrenal response. And that, of course, is exactly what the stress response is for. So in that kind of situation, you get the necessary physiological response, the situation is resolved (often within seconds and usually, I would guess, within minutes), and an hour later you are right back to normal and laughing about it with your friends while mentally embellishing the story to impress everyone with your bravery on return to camp. Or you're dead, and stress is no longer one of your worries.

    Contrast this with modern life, which is full of problems that can't be solved in a short time frame (or at all, in many cases), authority figures regularly issuing veiled (or explicit) threats to your livelihood if you don't subjugate your desires to them, and insufficient opportunity for the social connections, physical expression and creative pursuits that express our natural human drives and keep us from going totally neurotic. It's not a favorable light to shine on modernism.
    Last edited by Uncephalized; 12-28-2012 at 04:15 PM.
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    Uncephalized's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BestBetter View Post
    Joanie (and AnnLee) I enjoyed your responses, and I agree with them, but wouldn't there also have been chronic stress surrounding mating and hunting and childrearing way back when (even though yes, it would have been different, but chronic nonetheless)? And if the answer was that earlier humans were better at letting go, how did we as a species seem to forget how to do that?
    If I may jump in here, I have some thoughts. Why do you think that mating and childrearing would have been stressful? By most accounts H-G childrearing is typically shared out among many related caregivers, is quite non-intensive and permissive, and most H-Gs learn how to care for babies simply by watching adults do it, and by sharing in these responsibilities in a progressive way as they get older. Why stress about it when it's something everyone knows how to do and there are a dozen people around to help you whenever it gets difficult?

    As for mating, well, yeah, I guess that could be stressful sometimes. I don't think anyone's claiming that H-Gs lead completely stress-free lives. But where they might have some worries about getting that cute girl or guy to notice them, we have those PLUS job stress PLUS financial stress PLUS lack of social connection PLUS traffic PLUS... you get the picture. You can handle some chronic stress, if you've got everything else sorted. It becomes a problem when everything you do and everywhere you go, the stress just keeps piling on and on.
    Today I will: Eat food, not poison. Plan for success, not settle for failure. Live my real life, not a virtual one. Move and grow, not sit and die.

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    Uncephalized, your explanation makes a lot of sense - thank you!

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    Chronic stress is not the opposite of acute stress.
    Chronic stress arises when your body is faced with an acute stress before it has recovered from a previous acute stress of similar type and intensity. The more times in succession this happens, the worse the chronic symptoms get.
    Chronic stress can turn an acute stress that is recoverable into one that causes damage (sometimes irreversible).


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