Of all the things we lack in the world today—cheap oil, clean air, vacation time—conflict is not one of them. We must face conflict and confrontations, whether with our co-workers, significant others (current and ex) or peers, throughout our lives. Such fights can be a major source of distress. The outcome can affect our workload, relationships and control over resources, but also, it can lastingly alter our brains. How you handle the fray can impact your memory, mood and even your lifespan. Much research and thought has been put into handling these situations with grace. Here's what we know about social stress and how to beat it.
Conflict elicits stress, our self-defense mechanism against harmful elements in our world. Stress tells us one of two things: I've been hurt, or I'm about to be hurt. Naturally, we take the first thing seriously. If we're hurt, our brain shifts into action mode. We release adrenaline within seconds and cortisol within minutes, causing us to become more impulsive. When a dog bites, who cares what canine experts recommend, any action will do so long as it gets his incisors out of your thigh.
The second situation, when we have that sick feeling that something bad is about to happen, also activates our stress response, preparing us for action. We experience this anticipative stress in most long-term conflicts with peers; we worry about some harmful outcome that might happen—or not. The problem is that the worry itself can harm you as much as the outcome you're worried about. While you're stressing over what might happen, your body is releasing adrenaline and cortisol as if you were actually in danger. These hormones, while adaptive in short bursts when you must act, can be harmful if they're released chronically. Your body and brain remain on hyper-alert status; you're always running, even if nothing's chasing you.
The trouble with drama
For example, scientists have studied conflict in tree shrews, a small mammal, closely related to primates, that spends much of its time defending its territory. In the lab, when two tree shrews are put in the same cage, they fight to establish dominance. If a clear plastic wall is then placed in the cage to divide them, the mere sight of the dominant shrew is enough to stress the subordinate, persistently elevating its heart rate and cortisol levels. Its arteries deteriorate, its circadian rhythm is disrupted and many subordinates die within two weeks. They literally "worry to death."
Experiments such as the tree shrew study are designed to model and gain insight into human experiences. Rather than physical territorial disputes, humans often compete for desired positions at work, and nearly half of all Americans, either directly or indirectly, have experienced workplace bullying. A 2007 Zogby survey reported that more than one in 10 Americans are currently bullied at work, whether through gossip, backbiting or direct threats. Over time, victims of bullying often develop depression, anxiety or sleep disorders, just like their mammalian distant cousin, the tree shrew.
The problem is that cortisol, like most hormones in the body, has an optimum range, and going too much above it can be toxic. When stress lingers, cortisol levels remain chronically high; this is a telltale mark of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and burnout. Normally fluctuating as part of the body's circadian rhythm, cortisol peaks soon after you wake up and falls throughout the day. Excess release is linked to insomnia, disrupted metabolism and a weakened immune system. Have you ever noticed that you get sick more easily when you're stressed? Is it no wonder that cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes are more common in the early waking hours?
Stress changes your brain
The hippocampus, the brain region responsible for forming new memories, is particularly sensitive to cortisol. When released after an emotionally charged experience, cortisol can sear memories into our brain; it tells our brain the message was important, something that moved us enough to get excited, like the vivid recall of your whereabouts when you first heard about the September 11 tragedy.
But like the boy who cried wolf, too much of a strong signal can have a numbing effect. Depression and PTSD, both characterized by high cortisol levels, often lead to memory decline. To understand how high cortisol levels impact the brain, researchers inserted either cortisol or cholesterol capsules into the hippocampus of four vervet monkeys. One year later, they compared the brains for differences. Cholesterol did not cause much change, but cortisol weakened hippocampal cells. The cortisol-bathed neurons were shrunken and disordered. Over time, stress-induced cortisol release, if at continually high levels, might damage your hippocampus.
Experiencing social defeat also changes the brain's pleasure response. For example, cocaine causes a release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the brain's reward center. Rats that have just lost a fight discharge twice the dopamine in response to cocaine compared to victors or rats that haven't fought. Losers are also more likely to drink alcohol until they get drunk. Rats, too, need to take the edge off after a long day.
Yet winning or losing, alone, are poor predictors of stress. One might expect that dominant group members, the alphas, suffer less from stress because they win more often, but research suggests that other factors trump social rank. In captivity, weaker wolves suffer most because close proximity to the dominant, and the lack of space to evade it, keeps them in chronic angst. In the wild, the situation reverses; dominant wolves experience high levels of stress, accompanied by greater risk for heart disease, because they must continually prove their place at the top. Fighting wears on them.
In humans, even in countries with universal health care and equality of access, low socioeconomic status presents a significant risk for diabetes, heart disease and a shorter lifespan. But high status is no haven; one job almost guaranteed to take years off your life is the US presidency, a position of almost unmatched repute. The president must tussle to get the job done. Perhaps, more than the high-stakes decisions, it's the need to constantly confirm his worth that's giving Obama gray hairs.
Coming out on top
Across species, a few conditions reliably predict vulnerability to social stress and associated hormones. Individuals who suffer most have the least social support, the lowest presence of kin and the most frequent exposure to stressors. If your boss is a jerk, don't work in the cubicle next to his office. Also, regardless of rank, cagey individuals ail most from anxiety because they are more likely to perceive harmless peers and situations as threatening, adding needlessly to their stress levels.
The best-protected individuals buoy themselves with strong social support networks. They turn to friends and family when they are in need, which helps stabilize cortisol levels. Conflict can make us feel that our position within a group is in jeopardy; this potential exclusion may be the most painful part of losing. Your loved ones may offer solutions to your problem, but more importantly, they confirm your status. Knowing that our place is secure in families and friendships may be more comforting than any advice. Even if you lose your job or get a divorce, you're still a part of the family.
While we do not have total control over our environment, we can control our reactions to it. The more you feel threatened, the more stressed you'll be. If your job is at risk or your girlfriend might dump you, keep in mind the bigger picture. These losses, while not desired, won't kill you. Most of today's troubles will become bumps in the road when you look back on them in your rearview mirror, especially if you've got a buddy in the passenger's seat.
Bjorkvist, K (2001) Social Defeat as a stressor in humans. Physiology and Behavior. pp 435-442
Miczek, K et al. (2004) Aggression and defeat: persistent effects on cocaine self-administration and gene expression in peptidergic and aminergic mesocorticolimbic circuits. Neuroscience and Behavior Review. pp 787-802
Sapolsky, R. (2005) The influence of social hierarchy on primate health. Science. pp 648-652
Many thanks to Karen Kaplan for suggestions and insights.