Know How to Cope with Stress Or Your Stress Response May Kill You!

Know How to Cope with Stress Or Your Stress Response May Kill You!

Written by Dr. Cory Reich, Ph.D., Posted on , in Section Editors Picks

“Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man--his courage and hope, or lack of them--and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Most of us have spent time considering, defining and pursuing “the good life.” While the specifics are unique to all of us, it typically is defined with good health, free from monetary or physical oppression, meaningful relationships, freedom to play, explore interest, develop and master skills, pursue an occupation or career that is meaningful etc. We even hold as a primary prerogative that this “pursuit of happiness” is a fundamental human right.

Stress, the demands and challenges associated with meaningful pursuits, is common and even a necessary part of life and growth. What becomes one of life’s greatest predictors of health and wellness or disease and death, is how we cope with the demands and challenges of life. How does stress effect us? What happens if we perceive or believe that nothing we can do will allow us to overcome the challenges or demands of life, thereby loosing hope of ever achieving the life we desire? Not surprisingly, most of the leading causes of death are stress-response diseases. 

Let's Learn from the Animals?

In their book Animals Make Us Human, Grandin and Johnson open with a question: “What do animals need to have a good life?” This is not making reference to physical suvival alone, but includes those conditions that support mental wellness.

The Brambell Report, a report created by a committee commissioned by the British government to investigate the effects of intensive animal production, identified five essential freedoms animals need to have in order to achieve overall wellness; they include:

* Freedom from hunger and thirst
* Freedom from excessive discomfort
* Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
* Freedom to express normal behavior
* Freedom from fear and distress

These freedoms speak to very important conditions or principles that contribute to physical and psychological wellness in animals. Animals have specific things that are meaningful and critical for their existence and survival. What does “meaning” signify to an animal? Meaning characterizes those things that the animal focuses upon, has value for, and aligns their behavior to!

In animals, the good life are those things which are primarily genetically determined. These genetically determined conditions that are important are referred to as instincts. Instincts ensure survival of the species. As a result, animals make behavioral choices that are driven by genetic instincts. It is this instinct, which guides behaviors and when allowed to act and create desired outcomes the animal is happy, healthy and has a better chance of staying alive!

In fact, the animal brain creates a survival hierarchy, which means there is a genetic arrangement of those things that are most important that assist to ensure survival. The “meaning” hierarchy constitutes three survival imperatives:

1) eating/food;
2) protection from harm or the threat to be eaten or killed; and
3) reproduction.

So what happens if the environment does not support or severely challenges the animal to pursue those genetically programmed meaningful behaviors that provide the best chance for survival for themselves and their herd? This is what the Brambell Report was ultimately trying to understand: What are those things that support “the good life” for the animal? What happens when those conditions that are necessary for survival are not allowed expression or are threatened? The obvious answer--it creates enormous stress and the animals expresses unique stress response behaviors!

The Effects of Stress

Stress is the direct results of the actual threat or demands upon those things that support survival. The “stressor” can express themselves different for different species, depending upon what the specific survival efforts are that are unique to that species. What that means is that the same things do not stress an elephant and a gerbil.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.


Elephants in the wild, for instance, travel many miles a day in herds of about ten related adults and their offspring. Although elephants are very social animals, in zoos elephants are usually kept in pairs or even isolated. Elephant enclosures are incredibly small, compared to their natural habitat in the wild. As a result, elephants often show many signs of being stressed or bored. Elephants in captivity often display abnormal repetitive behaviors by endless pacing, rocking, or swaying back and forth. It is no surprise that elephants don’t do well in zoos. The average lifespan of zoo elephants is about 16-18 years, while wild elephants can live 50-70 years in their natural environment.


Grandin & Johnson further address the behaviors that are meaningful versus abnormal repetitive behaviors of the gerbil. They note that gerbils love to dig and burrow. Gerbils in captivity develop a corner-digging abnormal repetitive behavior when they’re around thirty days old. An adult gerbil will spend up to 30 percent of its “active time” digging in the corner of its cage. It has been determined by natural observation that gerbils do not demonstrate this behavior in their natural environment.

Grandin & Johnson emphasize that many researchers have believed that the reason captive gerbils dig the way they do, is that they have a biological need to dig and that this biological need to dig can’t be expressed inside a cage. However, in nature gerbils don’t burrow just to be digging, they dig to create underground tunnels and nests. Once they have created their underground accommodations, they stop digging.

A Swiss psychologist named Christoph Wiedenmayer performed a very revealing experiment. He put one set of baby gerbils in a cage with pre-dug tunnels but nothing soft to dig in. He put another set of baby gerbils in dry sand that they could dig in. Guess what happened? The gerbils in the pre-dug tunnel system did not develop abnormal repetitive behaviors of digging, while those in the soft sand did. The motivation and thus the meaning behind digging was not to satisfy a need to dig for the sake of digging itself. Rather, the gerbils are prey animals and have a need to live underground in order to feel safe. It does not matter that they are in a cage and there is no predator flying overhead in the child’s room. The gerbils’ genetic survival imperatives say--live underground or you will be eaten! What is more meaningful than that!

Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors

When chronic and severe stress imposes its influence on the animal, that animal begins to manifest signs of stress response diseases and behaviors. As noted above with the elephants and the gerbils in captivity, a common expression of stress in animals is demonstrated in what is called “stereotypy”, generally characterized by abnormal repetitive behaviors (ARB). ARB’s are often invariant, meaning they do not change; they are always the same behavioral pattern. ARB’s are also characteristic by having no goal or ultimate purpose. The abnormal repetitive behavior does not thwart or decrease the stress or conditions causing the stress, they represent the self soothing attempt to cope with the stressor. These behaviors demonstrate the inability of the animal to cope with the stress that is denying the expression of those things that are meaningful, or things that ensure survival and--that create the good life.

The Good Life for Humans

Studies on the human condition and those things that are meaningful do not differ much in principle. We, like our mammalian friends have instinctual survival tendencies which are genetically imprinted. In fact, as it relates to a hierarchy of survival imperatives, we share the same as those indicated above.

What is the common thread which seems amazingly similar for both animals and humans alike? It is the area of the brain that deals with emotions! While there are distinct differences between humans and animals in certain areas of the brain and the complexity of “the good life”, there is striking physical similarity to what we share in the area that deals with emotions--the reward system of the brain.

We share with our mammalian friends an area of the brain that deals with core emotional systems. That means that we both feel emotions when things don’t go right and when they do go right!

Stress Response & Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors

A historical example will help illustrate the how stress can effect our survival and quality of life. Orphans confined to their cribs, with all the physical needs being meet but starved for human contact during critical periods in early development, become incapable of molding early reflexive movement into complex patterns of crawling and walking. Otherwise healthy children, who experience the deprivation of those things that are emotionally meaningful (e.g. attention and nurturing of caregivers), experience extreme stress and too little affection. These children are likely to lag far behind their peer groups in physical growth and motor development. The suffering of this stress leads to a condition known as “Failure to Thrive.”

These children begin to manifest repetitive movements such as rocking, hand flapping, and head-banging. These behaviors offer a futile effort to self sooth, reflecting the natural tendency to demonstrate abnormal repetitive behaviors when those things that are meaningful are denied. Additional behavioral symptoms of children deprived of those things that are socially-emotionally meaningful often include:

* lack of appropriate weight gain
* irritability
* easily fatigued
* excessive sleepiness
* lack of age-appropriate social response (i.e., smile)
* avoids eye contact
* lack of molding to the mother's body
* does not make vocal sounds
* delayed motor development.

We now know, through advances in neuroscience, that human contact stimulates neural circuits to grow, drives gene transcription, shapes sensory-motor functioning, and helps regulate the autonomic nervous system – the system that regulates involuntary action such as intestines, heart, and glands. It is very important to understand that living with purpose and meaning is the primary human concern--both physically and emotionally--and is fundamental to being human. We are genetically made to desire and have things we need to believe in, have value for, and be committed to for our survival and to thrive emotionally.

Beyond Instinct

However, different from other species, our frontal cortex is much bigger and more developed. As a result, identifying things to believe in, placing value on things that are specific to us as individuals as well as community and cultures goes beyond instinct. Through unique experiences and individual differences, we identify specific aspects of life that are meaningful, and when we realize those things that we cherish and pursue there fulfillment we experience pleasure and joy. If I value skiing I will derive pleasure when I ski and when I feel my skills improve.

Our belief in the ability to create and pursue those things that are meaningful are directly tied to our emotional and physical health. It is important to underscore here that our very composition requires us to believe in things, to place value on those things that matter and feel the freedom to pursue and experience our hopes and dreams. We will not live in a state of meaninglessness for long--we can’t! Rollo May, a distinguished and well published psychologist, spoke to this:

“The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities”

May, R (1953). Man’s search for himself. New York: Norton

The Importance of Support

Most living creatures can feel primary emotions, such as feeling sad, afraid, depressed, happy and excited about things; and like us, many animals rely on a protected and gradual introduction to the world. We depend on the attention and nurturing of our caretakers, as they depend on those who surround them for support and loving care. Severe and/ or constant threat to those conditions that are meaningful, that relate to survival, whether driven by genetic instinct or determined through social tradition, creates stress on the developing social emotional brain.

Remember, unlike other animals, we as humans experience stress not only when we are in imminent danger, but in our imagination or in anticipated of a possible event that threatens something of importance. When faced with fear, illness, catastrophe, or loss, we turn to each other for comfort, regulation, and stability. Resiliency, or our ability to cope with life’s ups and downs, is closely tied to the extent and quality of our support systems. We appear to be capable of coping with just about anything when we are connected to those for whom we care and who care for us. Thus, it could be said, that--The quality of our lives is in direct proportion to the quality of our relationships.

In Summation

We are genetically made to believe in ourselves and our ability to influence desired outcomes, to pursue a life of meaning. As a result, we all have a life purpose that we must discover and act upon. When we act on our strengths, become more mindful of what we are attracted to--our interest, we notice that success comes more easily. Yet, life will challenge us at times, we must learn to ask for help from our support systems and draw upon our talents to manage these challenges as we focus on our life’s purpose. If we do not perceive a way through the challenge and develop the coping skills necessary to overcome them, we may develop some unhealthy self-soothing practices and even employ behaviors that lead to addiction and self destruction.