Candy From Strangers: Safety and Stress

The following posts and those I will be making in the coming weeks are excerpts from my book: Candy From Strangers: A Survival Guide To Stress (Publication pending). I think most of you understand the relationship between a low stress workplace and a low injury workplace but  this work takes a look at the science behind stress management—Phil La Duke


Times are stressful.  Terrorism and war come to us live on television and the Internet.  We could barely manage our lives before September 11th and now we have ten times the stress and are no better equipped to deal with it; what can we do?  Danger seems to lurk at every turn, it seems like we are constantly prepared for battle and we feel tired, weak and haggard.  There’s no denying we live in stressful times, we often yearn for simpler times far from the stress of modern life.  Unfortunately, travelling back in time to the days of cholera epidemics and world wars really wouldn’t do all that much to alleviate our stress, would it?

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are undeniably distressing but the plain truth is that these attacks didn’t invent stress, rather they took the stress of our everyday lives, amplified it, and crammed it forcefully to the forefront. It could be said that worry is t he only thing that truly separates man from the animals.  The human brain is sophisticated enough to analyze our environment and predict likely outcomes.  The human animal, alone can gather information from all over the planet, transmit it to all corners of the globe in milliseconds, and present it to it’s willing audience waiting to worry.  The rain forest, global warning, nuclear war; time and again we gather and report information that will give us more to worry about, and worry without action equals s tress.  Parents who once wistfully reminisced about their school days are now giving panicky lectures to their children about what to do if a classmate comes to school with a gun.  A loud noise in the workplace makes people think of a madman on a rampage.   Even the U.S. mail is no longer benign; the simple act of opening a letter can have lethal consequences.  From air travel to a stranger at the door we live in deadly times, and waiting for disaster is slowly but surely killing each of us.  Information overload, sound-bite addiction, and good old fashion worry have combined to create an unprecedented gristmill.   We live in a mortar and pestle society and something has to give and give soon; unless we do something about it.

We have to do something about this stress before it kills us.  Do you doubt that stress is killing us?  A fortune is made and spent on drugs to treat medical conditions—from stomach ulcers to headaches—that are caused or aggravated by stress.   While millions of people suffer from stress related scare few of us do anything to appropriate manage the stress of modern life.   Many of us have tired of the new age approach to stress and have resolved to “tough it out.”  While this “grin and bear it” approach to stress management is an increasingly attractive approach it may actually contribute to a person’s stress and create even greater problems.

Stress and Its Role in Our Survival

Everyone these days seems to be talking about the dangers of stress and frankly many of them don’t seem to know much about it.   When asked to define stress today’s pundits tend to either ignore the question or to cloud up their response with jargon and “psycho babble”.  Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of protecting us from danger.  Without stress we would blissfully roast our hands against a hot stove, or lop our way into on-coming traffic where smiling motorists would mow us down.  We owe our lives to stress.   When stress is properly applied to our bodies it saves our lives.  We yank our hands away from hot stoves, leap in panicked jerks out of the path of on-coming traffic as the freak-out motorist careens wildly through traffic to avoid us.  Yes, stress is an important part of our survival.  But what about when stress is misused, misinterpreted, or misdirected by our bodies (did I miss any “misses”?)  The same reflexes designed to preserve our fleshy behinds turns on our bodies like a jilted ex-lover.

Most of the information our brains receive comes to us through our subconscious.   In order for us to be able to focus and concentrate on abstract tasks our brains automate many of our routine tasks.  Picture your brain as a computer filled with thousands of software programs that automate the simpler tasks, and even some tasks that are not so simple.  How many of us have to stop and think about the physical steps required to turn a doorknob, start a car, or drive to work.  We do all these things without thinking because our brain has automated these tasks.  The old joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time is funny precisely because our brains have so automated these tasks that to not be able to do both at the time is ludicrous. While the conscious mind doesn’t bother with the mundane, the subconscious works overtime to get us through our day.  In addition to running these “sub-routines” our brains must sort through tons of information that it receives and route some of it to our conscious minds while filing most of it away in our subconscious where it is compared by the nervous system against our “database of danger.”  Forgive my melodrama, but I think the analogy is an apt one.   As infants we come into this world with very little information; we’re helpless.   Through a concerted effort on the part of our brains we gather as much information as we can as quickly as we can.   We quickly learn that a hot stove is far too dangerous to be trifled with and so we file away in our subconscious any inputs—visual, aural, oral, tactile, and olfactory— that are even remotely related to the danger we call a hot stove.  Our subconscious even writes a program that cause us to remove our hand from a hot stove so fast that we have removed ourselves from the danger before our conscious minds even realizes what’s happening.  Our subconscious has saved us using what scientists call the fight-flight reflex.

The fight-flight response is our bodies’ way of protecting us from the all the dangers that we have filed away in the “danger database”.  As we our bombarded with information our brains sift through the small percentage that is necessary for our cognitive functions, or in other words the things that require us to think about, for instance, reading.  Do you find it difficult to concentrate in a room filled with noise?  Is it more difficult for you to read in when surrounded by a flurry of activity?  If so, the difficulty likely arises from your brain trying to sort through this input to determine whether or not a danger is present.  In the time you are taking to read this, you’re brain is being deluged with sensory input.  Perhaps a fluorescent light is buzzing nearby or maybe a television plays off in the distance.  While you aren’t conscious of the input, your subconscious is carefully and quickly reviewing the information and checking it against your danger database.  In most cases these inputs are harmless and your subconscious doesn’t bother you with them.  In some cases these inputs match a danger in the database and trigger a conscious response.  In still other cases, the input don’t provide enough information for a definitive conclusion to be made and the brain has to assume a “better safe than sorry” posture.   In these cases the brain prepares the body for the worst-case scenario and the result is stress.

Just as touching a hand to a hot stove elicits a rapid response where we jerk our hand from harm’s way, so too does our body react to subtler threats although in far less dramatic ways.

Whenever our bodies perceive danger our brains activate the “flight or fight” reflex.   First it our bodies give us an energy rush as it releases stored sugar and fats into the bloodstream. Next our brains increase our breathing to supply more oxygen to the blood—oxygen that will be needed to give our bodies the short-term boost it will need to combat the danger.  Our heart rate then accelerates to provide more blood to the muscles. Newly flush with more blood, our muscles tense for action.  More blood is quickly supplied to these muscles as the body reroutes the blood from the hands and feet.   Blood is also routed to the brain and away from the stomach and digestion stops. Our senses become more acute and actively scan for more signs of danger.  Finally, alertness heightens to the point where it becomes difficult to focus.   Our bodies turn into finely honed killing machines ready to strike down danger in its tracks.  Unfortunately, not all triggers are, in fact, dangers.

Most of us have heard of mothers who experience brief moments of superhuman strength and lift a car off a trapped child, a testament (whether factual or not) to the benefits of the fight-flight reflex.  But what about instances where the threat isn’t real?  What effect does the flight-fight reflex in imagined, or misperceived threats have on our bodies?  The body reacts to a threat that isn’t there the same way it does to real threats, it gets our bodies ready to bust a head or bust a move. In the cases where the treat is imaginary, or chronic, our brains flood our bodies with toxic chemicals that we don’t really need and can’t use and so our bodies are left to deal with these chemicals the same way it deals with other poisons.

Remember the story of the Sword of Damocles?   In this legend, Damocles expresses his envy for the life of a king he was visiting, marveling at the luxurious palace, array of servants, and beautiful women at the king’s disposal.  To prove a point (to put it mildly) the king orders his servants to suspend a sword above Damocles’ head with a single string.  The king then tells Damocles that this is what the king’s life is like; always wondering if the string will break and he will be killed.  For many of us, our lives are like the Sword of Damocles, and our bodies react to the stress of wondering when the dangers we continuously perceive will make there moves and force us into action.

Stress is designed to protect us, so why does it cause us harm?  The fight-flight reflex was designed as a short-term solution to an acute, life-threatening situation, by kicking our bodies into overdrive, but the bulb that burns twice as bright burns half as long.  Instead of release a massive does of chemicals, we instead release low-level doses that wear our bodies out.

When our fight flight reflex is activated our brains become miniature chemical plants as an area of the brain stem releases of a variety of chemicals. Norepinephrine, a hormone, that in turn causes the Adrenal glands to release and pump out Adrenaline. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and raises our metabolism in anticipation hearts beat faster, our blood pressure increase, our pulses to race, us to sweat, and for us to breath heavily. The brain also reroutes our blood from the stomach to our muscles and other vital areas of the body while it releases blood sugar, lactic acid and other chemicals, all to get the body ready to pound a mugger’s head in, or to run like a rabbit.  These chemicals are effectively toxins that give our bodies a quick jump-start.  This “shot of adrenaline” is critical to our survival but this barrage of chemicals effects our emotions and leaves us feeling anxious, worried, and even paranoid—even when the danger isn’t real.

We tend to think of the Flight-Fight Reflex as an all or nothing proposition, but is it?  What about small dangers that we encounter that don’t escalate into a full-blown crisis?  In these cases the brain still releases chemicals and prepares our bodies for battle.  Blood is rerouted, smaller amount of chemicals are released instead of an immediate response the brain gradually puts us on alert, effectively changing our body chemistry and putting a long-term stress on our major biological systems.

Let’s again take a look at what is happening to our bodies: our heart rate increases.  An accelerated heart rate is useful in a crisis but a chronic increase leads to high blood pressure.  We breath faster providing more oxygen, but when the condition is chronic it causes chest pains from a tired, strained diaphragm.  Digestion stops as blood leaves the stomach; this causes a variety of digestive problems and aggravates ulcers.  Blood leaves the hands, head, and feet, which causes headache, and cold hands and feet.  Coagulation of the blood increases, which increases the likelihood of blood clots and strokes.  Muscles tense in anticipation of an attack; which leads to chronic muscle pain and fatigue.  In short, if we expose ourselves to low-grade stresses we use our body in  a way in which it was never intended and it wears our.  Just as building that were designed to withstand a great force all at once will gradually fall apart from years of light wear, so to will our bodies fall apart from constant exposure to stress.

Some of you maybe thinking, “okay this makes sense, but I don’t exactly have a whole lot of danger in my life, but I still have a whole lot of stress.”  I doubt any of us have no dangers around us, although I grant you most of the dangers that our bodies perceive aren’t real.

Most communication is non-verbal, in other words, most information we gather about our surroundings comes from our senses, and not from what we read or that is spoken to us.  Our senses are barraged with input that our brain sorts and filters and decides what is important.  We need only take a moment, close our eyes and listen to the noises in the room.  How many previously unnoticed noises do you hear?  All our senses are gathering data at a blinding speed and storing it in the wonderful and amazing database of our brain.  Some of these inputs the brain decides are worthy of the attention of the conscious mind while others it stores in our subconscious mind for later retrieval and use if necessary.

The brain rightfully judges much of the input from our senses as benign, while other information is matched up against our database to see if it is indicative of danger.  If one smells smoke, one is likely to investigate the cause.  Why?  Is the smell of smoke so unpleasant that we should immediately eradicate it?  No.  Why then do we investigate the smell of smoke?  To be sure there is no danger of fire.  So what does any of this have to do with stress?  As infants we gather and catalog sensory input, some of these inputs we categorize as harmless and others we categorize as harmful.  We are confronted with many things we’ve programmed ourselves to see as potential hazards.   Take for instance the baby crying on an airplane.  We know that babies cry for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with any sort of danger to us, yet the baby’s cry produces physiological responses in our body because our subconscious catalog equates crying with danger.

But in many cases, our poor brains don’t have enough information to make an informed decision as to whether or not sound the alarms so it assumes the worst.  In the early days of humanity mankind didn’t have the luxury of mistakes, if Grog ate the blue food and died, the rest of the tribe steered clear of blue food, reasoning it was better to miss out on a culinary delight that it is to die an agonizing death from ingesting poison. The idea that what you don’t know can kill you is hard wired into our brains, and the human animal has adapted to this such that if we don’t have enough information we fill in the gaps with the worst case scenario.

Other superstitions grew out of man’s need to accurately predict the outcome of serious situations, like a major battle or the harvest crops.  Desperate to predict the future, man turned to oracles, mystics, and fortunetellers.  Primitive societies didn’t have a whole lot of stress as we know it, but they had their fair share of death.

The optimists among us are now shaking their heads and decrying this as heresy, but consider this situation: your boss tells everyone in the department (except you) that they are to be in a mandatory meeting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning.  When you ask your boss if you need to be there, your boss says, “No, I just need to see everyone else.”  You ask similarly tight-lipped co-workers who tell you “they aren’t allowed to talk about the meeting, or what it’s about.”  Now ask yourself, is the purpose of the meeting to plan a surprise party for you or is some sinister plot afoot.  Is this example really so absurd?  What responsible parent tells a child “if a stranger offers you a ride, you take it!  You never know when another stranger will be by and the next stranger may not offer!”  Even the friendliest parents will tell their children not to talk to strangers.  Why?  Aren’t strangers just friends we haven’t met yet?  Of course we warn our children about strangers because of a potential threat, not an actual threat.  Our brains treat the nonverbal, subconscious input in the exact same way, when in doubt, sound the alarm.  The brain figures that is better to have chemicals that we don’t need than it is to need chemicals that we don’t have; but this is not necessarily a healthy outlook.

What’s worse is that because our brains respond to the absence of information in the same way it does to real danger indicators. Our brains must assume that information that is not in the danger database is a threat; if it assumes a perception is benign when it is malignant the body is completely vulnerable.  But if the brain assumes the perception is malignant when it is actually benign the body is still ready for action and assumes no real risk.  A lack of information from an authority figure will lead to paranoia.  If our bosses don’t talk to us we convince ourselves that our boss doesn’t like us.  If the silence continues we may convince ourselves that our boss intends to fire us.  Left unchecked, this fear may make us dislike our boss to the point where we quit or act out and get fired.

To complicate matters, non-verbal warnings may not even come from our own senses, often we are victims of “herd stress”.  Herd stress is where an individual picks up the stress of his or her surroundings.  Watch a documentary on the animals of Africa and you will see an excellent example of herd stress.  A herd of gazelles stand leisurely grazing.  Suddenly one tenses at a hint of danger.  Within seconds the whole herd is on full alert and in the blink of an eye the herd stampedes as one, out of harms way.  Are we humans so different?  When we pick up nonverbal cues that indicate that someone around us is stressed, we become stressed.  Why?  Because our brains sense that even though it can detect no danger, perhaps someone else in the tribe has perceived danger.  Our bodies will react without waiting to see if the threat is real. Think of this as the “lookout reflex”.  Our bodies rely on “look outs” to warn it of dangers that it either has not detected or has not yet cataloged as dangers.

Picture our senses as our bodies’ radar.  We gather information about our physical environment and scan for dangers.  If our senses pick up no sign of danger we are completely relaxed.  If on the other hand, our bodies detect potential dangers it puts our bodies on alert; the level of alertness corresponds to the level of the perceived danger.  The United States military uses a system to rate security threats on a five-point scale.  Defcon 5 represents the lowest level of threat while Defcon 1 represents the highest.  This is an apt analogy for our bodies system for evaluating danger.  When we are relaxing and having fun our internal radar has sensed no threats and so it offers no reaction, it’s at Defcon 5.  But as the subconscious mind identifies potential threats, it moves us to  a more heightened state, Defcon 4 if the threats need to be monitored but prove no immediate threat, Defcon 3 if the threats are more serious and so on.

Anything that interferes with our ability to correctly monitor the dangers around us causes de facto stress.  Listening to music so loud that we can’t hear an ambulance siren is very stressful, for example.  Our internal radar is jammed so we must drop to Defcon 3 since that is the only way our subconscious can be sure that we are protected.  Great! So we have to sit around in silence or stress will kill us, right? Silence can also stress us.   Nature teems with noises from crickets chirping to birds singing.  Silence in the forest usually signals a danger is looming.  The last thing one hears before the leopard attacks is an unnerving silence before the roar.  By surrounding yourself with silence you may be added to your stress.  Our bodies need and expect to hear some ambient noise, without some noise our radar may believe the senses are malfunctioning, or that the lack of noise is just the silence before the roar.  Remember our brains didn’t construct the danger database in a vacuum, rather it assigned meaning to each of the inputs it received.  The popularity of recordings of natural sounds (waves crashing, wolves howling, rain falling) is testament to the soothing affects of nature.

So much of the information we receive is non-verbal and subconscious that sometimes we see some “unexplained” phenomenon, like psychic flashes and premonitions.  Have you ever had a dream that foretold the future?  Predicted the death of a loved one?  While there are cases where such phenomenon can not be readily dismissed in many cases these psychic emanations are nothing more mysterious than our subconscious mind reading clues that our conscious minds miss and predicting a likely outcome.    Take the psychic flash that foretells the death of someone you know.  Isn’t it plausible that your internal radar picked up  nonverbal cues from the person (subtle changes in skin color, behavior, tone of voice, weight, etc,) that gave your subconscious a clue that all was not well with the person’s physical condition, even though the person may not have been aware of his or her own weakening physical state?

Our dreams our where our brains make sense of all the accumulated information and sometimes provide us with meaningful information about our waking world.  Our dreams may warn us of a potential problem, or may just be telling us that it now understands all the information it gathered and has decided the all the information it gathered is harmless.  Either way, our dreams can be an important source of information about the source of stress in our lives.  In most cases, our dreams our meaningless, left over information that our subconscious mind doesn’t know what it should do with.  Should it file it in the danger database or throw the information away.  Dreams are the mechanism for our subconscious minds to make the subconscious cognative.

Defensive behaviors that remain after the danger has been removed are called superstitions.  Most superstitions are rooted in fact.  For example, spilling salt is considered bad luck because salt was once a highly prized and somewhat rare commodity.  Salt was necessary for preserving food and was used to pay part of Roman soldiers’ wages.  Spilling salt, and thus losing it, was literally losing currency.  Spilling (and losing) one’s paycheck would generally be considered unlucky by anyone’s standard.  Spilling salt is no longer all that unlucky in and off itself.  Modern refrigeration and mining techniques make salt plentiful and less necessary (many of us intentionally avoid it!)  But in many people’s minds, spilling salt is still unlucky.  The irony of stress and superstition is that many superstitious people create the stress associated with dangers that that modern technology has eliminated.


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