A dry twig in the jungle snaps, and our common ancestor--your father, my father, 1,500 generations ago--leaps into alert mode. Adrenaline floods his system, causing lipid cells to squirt fatty acids into his bloodstream for quick energy. His breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and his heart beats faster, increasing the flow of oxygen to his muscles, enhancing his strength and speed. His blood vessels constrict, minimizing bleeding if he's injured, and his body releases natural coagulants and painkillers. His sweat glands open, leaving his skin slippery and hard for predator to grasp. His hair stands on end, making him appear larger and more threatening. His pupils dilate, increasing his ability to scan dark jungle terrain. All this happens in less than a second, and zip, Dad's off and running, far enough ahead of the tiger to ensure that your bloodline, and mine, makes it to the next generation.
Saber Tooth Boss
Today all the tigers are locked in the zoo, and so are we. Like them, we're now captives of little boxes, kept to orderly eating schedules, told when to sleep and wake by bulbs that hang from the ceiling. Oh, we're safe from the tigers now. But no one has told our Cro-Magnon brains the good news. We still react to stress the same way, but now our physiology works to hurt us, not help. Today the twig snap comes with an innocent "Can you drop by my office?" and the lion roars via e-mail. Yet our bodies still behave as they did 300 centuries ago, flooding our systems with adrenaline every time a threat looms--whether it's physical, emotional, or financial. And because we can no longer run for safety when stress attacks (imagine how the boss might like that), our need for fight or flight is never addressed.
The Anatomy of Stress
Our bodies are built for momentary stresses, but our society delivers the long-term type. Unyielding adrenaline forces more blood through our delicate vessels, raising our risk of stroke and heart disease. To mop up the fat flood, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which stores the fatty acids in the form of adipose tissue around our bellies. Increased muscle stimulation and digestive shutdown lead in time to back pain and ulcers; constricted blood vessels cause migraines. The maddening thing is that we're feeling all these symptoms not in the company of a ravenous predator, but rather in those lonely, wee small hours when we're awake and our partner's asleep and the bills on the kitchen table are laughing at us. And this is supposed to be nature's way of keeping us alive. Instead, it's killing us, just as surely as--perhaps even more surely than--the fat we ate for dinner or the genetic time bomb lurking in our DNA. All told, the physical symptoms of stress cost the United States an estimated $200 billion a year.
Maybe Stress Made You Do it
But even that huge number may be too low. Stress demands action, and action is not what our orderly world is built for. Stress makes men do things they shouldn't do, because they have to do something. Stress puts a besotted, heartbroken husband behind the wheel of a car; lures a 17-year-old expectant dad into the middle of a drug bust; pushes an honest businessman across the threshold into racketeering; and makes us snap at our partners, or our kids, with words we can't take back, that start us down the path to all sorts of costly consequences.
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