Where does stress come from? That's easy. It comes from stressors like traffic jams, angry bosses, and screaming children.
But why? Why do stressors provoke stress in us? The answer, which is repeated in practically every article and book on stress (and which is disastrously wrong, as you'll see in a moment) involves human evolution. Once upon a time (the story goes), our ancestors walked across the grassy plains, only to be confronted by... a saber-toothed tiger! These ancestors immediately experienced a hormonal surge, which you might remember from high school biology as the fight-or-flight response.
Those who had a strong fight-or-flight response were more likely to survive and produce offspring. Those who didn't have a strong response, for obvious reasons, were not. And so, over the course of many generations, this response was strengthened, eventually becoming hardwired in us as a very useful adaptation. And then something unusual happened.
Life on Earth changed.
Civilizations formed. Villages, then towns, then cities appeared. And, in the space of a few thousand years—the mere blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective—those grassy plains and saber-toothed tigers were replaced by super-highways and micromanaging bosses. And our fight-or-flight response, calibrated so well to respond to occasional threats, started going haywire.
And that, supposedly, is why we experience so much stress today. The number of stressors has multiplied exponentially: traffic, money, success, work/life balance, the economy, the environment, parenting, family conflict, relationships, disease. As the nature of human life has become far more complicated, our ancient stress response hasn't been able to keep up. Our bodies react as if threats are everywhere, as if saber-toothed tigers have us surrounded. We have become victims of our own biology. And the best we can do (we are told) is breathe, relax, exercise, and try to cope.
As I explain in my book, The Myth of Stress, all of this is fundamentally wrong. It's also incredibly costly. It costs you and your loved ones the emotional burden of living with stress everyday. It costs you the physical burden that necessarily follows. And, of course, it costs individuals, companies, and our government billions of dollars each year. Recovering these costs requires that we finally break through the myth of stress.
The truth is that stress doesn't come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances. More specifically, stress comes from a particular kind of thinking that humans happen to excel at. The more of this thinking you engage in, the more stress you experience.
This sounds strange at first, and raises many questions:
These are important questions that affect millions of people, and they're why I wrote The Myth of Stress. They're also why I'm honored to now be blogging here on Psychology Today, where I can interact with a community of like-minded people who are serious about living happy, healthy lives. I'll be tackling every one of these questions, and more, in the blog posts that follow. Let me know what your own questions are about stress, and let's break through the myth of stress together. You can also find me at activinsight.com and on Twitter @mythofstress.
Next up, in part two: Aren't some circumstances inherently stress-producing?