Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Cave-Man Approach to Stress-Management

Your brain wants to solve problems by putting something in your mouth.

Humans evolved the ability to worry and the ability to turn it off. We have been using the same few anxiety relievers for millennia because they come naturally. Put something in your mouth. Follw a leader. Distract your mind.

These stress-relievers have drawbacks, alas. Here’s a cave-man guide to our natural stress relievers and their respective drawbacks. 

Put something in your mouth
You feel better quickly when you put various things in your mouth, and that distracts you from the stress. The down side is that the threat doesn’t go away, so you have to keep stimulating your mouth, or perhaps your eyes or ears. These distractors usually have side effects, which cause more anxiety and more need for distraction.

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Trust others to manage the threat
You feel less anxious when you trust someone else to keep things under control. The down side is that they are sometimes wrong, and they are never you. They keep the focus on threats to them, so you may overlook threats to you until they’re dangerously close. That triggers anxiety, and you may feel even more tempted to outsource your anxiety management

Eliminate the threat at its source
This appeals to the human cortex. Lizards have watched their babies get eaten by predators for millions of years without having the urge to "do something." Humans began building shelters for their babies, and that put a stop to the problem. But it didn't stop anxiety, because humans immediately focused on the next most pressing threat to their children. Over the millennia, humans reduced many threats, and each time a new threat appeared instantly. Our problem-solving efforts often succeed, but we sustain an awareness of threat.

None of our natural stress relievers banish worry for good. What's a bi-pedal omnivore to do?

Diversify.

The more stress-relief tools you have, the more you can rotate them and offset their weaknesses. If you develop lots of anxiety relievers, you can choose the best tool for each angst-ridden moment.

Most people don’t do this. They develop a couple of stress-management tools and stick to those. We have good reason. Our brains learn from experience, and once you find a tool that works, you stop having the experiences that build other tools. For example, once you find that pizza relieves stress, you apply pizza to new problems with the same old result. You have to refuse the pizza before a new tool will develop. (We may not be talking about pizza, here, since you may be distracting yourself with !@#{, or with %&^, or with */$.) 

Once you put your trust in Tom, Dick or Harriet, you don't experience other potentially trustworthy social bonds. 

When you focus on one source of threat, you overlook other potential causes.

You have to put down your existing tools before you can experience new ones. When you resist picking up that old familiar tool, you teach your brain that you can survive without putting any one thing in your mouth, without trusting any one person to make things better, and without erasing any one specific threat. 

That’s the best stress relief a hominid will find!

If you want more fun and free info about your brain, check out my powerpoint presentations:

How Your Brain Works

It’s Not Easy Being Mammal

Meet Your Happy Chemicals

(bottom right hand corner under “Research Papers”). 

You can't stop your brain from worrying because it evolved to scan constantly for threats. But you can control your response to that threatened feeling. It's not easy, however. Your natural alarm bells evolved to be as annoying as possible because that gets your attention. When a gazelle feels alarm at the approach of a lion, his internal alarm gets him to run, even though he'd rather keep munching grass. The better you understand your natural alarm system, the more power you have over it.

Your emergency broadcast system is designed to feel awful because that keeps you focused on making it stop. In the state of nature, your internal alarm helped you confront real emergencies. Today, you have unlimited information about potential emergencies and you decide which ones to focus on. 

Ideally, you want to stop your internal alarm by eliminating the threat that triggered it. If it's a fire alarm, you want to put out the fire. But that's not always possible. If your boss drives you crazy with his annoying arched eyebrows, you can't put duct tape on his eyebrows. But your career concerns ease for the moment when you put your favorite something in your mouth, be it a drink, a pill, or an ice cream cone. You can also relieve that threatened feeling by finding allies against your boss, or by busying your mind with other thoughts. These alarm-relieving strategies are as old as our brain is.

Humans have been trying to stop bad feelings since we first walked the earth. You may have heard that human brains create more anxiety than animal brains, but evidence for the opposite conclusion is strong. Primitive brain structures create anxiety, and the cortex strives to restrain it. 

The reptile brain scans constantly for signs of danger. It’s always on high alert. The mammal brain eases this anxiety by forming social attachments. Social groups distribute the burden of scanning for danger. But social bonds cause stress in their own way. Social animals release cortisol when they see distress in others, thanks to mirror neurons. And social animals have in-group conflicts that can be as stressful as predator threat. What's a mammal to do?

When you know where this bad feeling is coming from, you realize that it's not necessarily an emergency. It's just a source of information. If you ignore the information the bad feeling will continue. If you react automatically to the information, you may end up with more emergencies. Instead, you can honor your bad feelings by blending them with new information. 

Your brain releases cortisol when it sees threat. A big surge of cortisol is pain or panic, while a small, steady drip is anxiety or stress. These bad feelings are good because they warn you of danger in time to avoid it. A gazelle gets a bad feeling when it smells a lion. It survives because it doesn't wait for the bad feeling of the lion's teeth in its neck. You don’t need to touch a hot stove twice because cortisol connects neurons the first time. Cortisol paves neural pathways that make it easy for you to recognize anything that hurt you in the past. Cortisol doesn't work by triggering a sophisticated risk analysis. It works by making an organism feel so bad that it will do whatever it takes to make the bad feeling stop.

Your brain needs stress to function. Like a car needs an accelerator and a brake, your brain needs one system to push you toward things that are good for you, and another system to pull you back from things that are bad for you. Without your unhappy chemicals, you would seek happy chemicals without due regard for the risks. Unhappy chemicals promote survival as much as happy chemicals. Accepting your internal alarm system makes it easier to live with.

More on building new happy chemical circuits in my book Meet Your Happy Chemicals.

More on transcending negative expectations in my book 

Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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