Tuesday 16 October 2018

Straining to relate

Stress takes less of a toll on our personal lives when we understand it fully

(stock photo)
(stock photo)
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Have you ever taken the time to think back upon the decisions you made while under stress, or wondered what role tension may have played in conflicts and disagreements?

Sure, we all understand the physiological symptoms of stress - the increased heart rate and shallow breathing; the gut problems and tension headaches - but rarely do we stop to think how chronic stress affects our attitude, behaviour and, thus, our relationships.

A recent study by clinical psychologist Dr Steven Stein found that 42pc of American workers say they frequently experience stress, yet 48pc didn't realise that their emotional intelligence can be negatively compromised as a result.

Stress is known as the health epidemic of the 21st century but, as this study proves, many of us haven't fully comprehended its pernicious effects.

The body goes into high alert when we're under stress. The amygdala - the part of the brain that responds to danger - sends a distress signal that orchestrates a cascade of hormonal changes.

The three major stress hormones that are released - adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine - make us stronger and faster, but not necessarily smarter.

Neuroendocrinologist and author, Robert M Sapolsky, lays it out in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best. "Logically, when the amygdala wants to mobilise a behaviour - say, fleeing - it talks to the frontal cortex, seeking its executive approval," he writes. "But if sufficiently aroused, the amygdala talks directly to subcortical, reflexive motor pathways. Again, there's a trade - increased speed by by-passing the cortex, but decreased accuracy."

In other words, stress both speeds us up and slows us down. We get things done faster but we are more likely to make mistakes that can delay us in the long run.

There is also evidence to suggest that stress impairs our logical reasoning. We make reactive rather than proactive decisions when the brain shifts into survival mode, and we become less likely to think about the wider implications of our choices.

We also become less likely to think outside the box, where we can find valuable, sustainable solutions to our problems. "Stress weakens frontal connections with the hippocampus - essential for incorporating the new information that should prompt shifting to a new strategy," explains Sapolsky.

Indeed, stress can narrow our vision entirely. After all, high levels of adrenaline can lead to temporary tunnel vision - both literally and figuratively. Disagreement with your boss? Maybe you should hand in your notice. Marital strife? Maybe you should pack your bags and head to your mother's house. Friend didn't text you back? Maybe she's annoyed with you. Maybe everyone is annoyed with you...

Everything can seem like a threat when we're in survival mode, hence our more primitive defence mechanisms usually kick in. Examples include denial - "I'm just really busy" - or displacement, which is what happens when we take our frustration out on an innocent bystander or a call centre operative.

Modern workers tend to wear stress like a badge of honour - when we're stressed we feel busy and when we feel busy we feel validated - hence they rarely stop to think about how it might be affecting their relationships.

"It is common for people with acute stress reactions to be over-aroused, short-tempered, irritable, anxious and tense," explain Lyle H Miller and Alma Dell Smith, authors of The Stress Solution. "Often, they describe themselves as having 'a lot of nervous energy'. Always in a hurry, they tend to be abrupt, and sometimes their irritability comes across as hostility. Interpersonal relationships deteriorate rapidly when others respond with real hostility. The workplace becomes a very stressful place for them."

Stress bears an even heavier burden in romantic relationships, largely because men and women handle it differently. Because women produce more of the bonding hormone oxytocin during stressful situations, they are more likely to nurture those around them, explains Shelley Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of California and author of The Tending Instinct.

While women are more likely to "tend-and-befriend", men are more likely to have a typical 'fight-or-flight' reaction to stress - often retreating to the metaphorical 'man cave' to work it all out.

Meanwhile, men are more likely to take risks when they are under stress, while women become more risk-averse. Couple this with loss of libido - another common symptom of stress - and relationships are put under even more strain.

This isn't to say that all stress is bad. On the contrary, writes Sapolsky: "Stress is a good thing. If you're stressed like a normal mammal in an acute physical crisis, the stress response is lifesaving. But if instead you chronically activate the stress response for reasons of psychological stress, your health suffers."

If you're in the latter group, try learning more about how stress affects behaviour. It may not always help you see the wood from the trees, but it will certainly stop you jumping in off the deep end.

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