Here’s how stress turns us into someone else.
Do these kinds of thoughts sound familiar?
- He gets like that when he’s stressed.
- I hear she’s in a really bad mood—better hide the vodka.
- I’ve never seen him like that before—he was just so angry!
- When she gets stressed out, I try to just avoid her completely. She literally becomes a monster!
When you get to know someone well, you see all sides of a person. And this process typically includes learning about someone’s stressed self. And often, as alluded to by the aforementioned examples, one’s stressed self differs from one’s authentic self in a variety of ways. In fact, often, one’s stressed self and their authentic self bear little resemblance to one another whatsoever.
The Biology of the Stressed Self
In an extraordinary treatise on how our evolutionary history bears on our mental health, the late neuroscientist John Montgomery* (2010) presented a simple and elegant set of ideas that can be broadly applied to understanding the psychology of stress and mental health.
In his model, he appeals to two very basic biological processes.
First, he talks about homeostasis.
Homeostasis is, simply, the drive for some system to move back to a basic and optimal resting point after being activated. Homeostasis applies to so many systems, in fact. After you’ve sprinted 100 yards, your cardiovascular system slows down and your pulse rate moves toward your resting rate.
Your respiratory system follows suit. After a long day of work that includes many cognitive actions, such as a writing computer code for an engineering project, you might find yourself needing to sit down in front of the TV and watch four straight episodes of Cobra Kai. And so forth. Biological and psychological systems strive for optimal levels of balance. This is the principle of homeostasis and it is a basic feature of the living world.
Second is fight-or-flight response
A second basic biological process that Montgomery’s model appeals to pertains to what is known as the fight-or-flight response (see Gray & Bjorklund, 2018, for a detailed description). Basically, this response (also referred to as activation of the sympathetic nervous system) corresponds to a stressed state of an organism that exists when some threat emerges in the environment of that organism.
The fight-or-flight response is very basic and tends to generalize across stressful stimuli. In short, when threatened, our bodies mobilize for action. Our heart rate and respiratory systems go on the increase, ready to fight or flee if needed. Our digestive system slows down so that we’re not suddenly finding ourselves needing a sandwich during an emergency, for instance. Our eyes dilate, allowing for optimal visual processing, and so forth. And typically when the threat is safely removed from the environment, our bodily systems, via the homeostatic mechanisms of the parasympathetic nervous system, go back to their resting states.
In effect, we can think of one’s stressed self as essentially being who that person is during a state of fight-or-flight activation.
And when someone is in such a stressed state, for any number of reasons, that person is, in important ways, actually not him or herself! When your body and behavioral systems are mobilized to address life-threatening stimuli, you become someone different. You’re not likely to just sit and joke around. You’re stressed. And this state of stress evolved for good evolutionary reasons. The fight-or-flight response literally has the capacity to mobilize behaviors that can save one’s life.
The Downside of the Fight-or-Flight Response
While the fight-or-flight response, which, by the way, is very similar in humans as it is in many species, is clearly evolutionarily adaptive in one sense, it can also be very maladaptive in other senses.
The effects of chronic stress are, in fact, famously maladaptive, including a broad array of adverse physical and psychological effects. Chronic stress has adverse effects on such physical systems as the cardiovascular, reproductive, and immune systems as well as on such psychological phenomena as emotions, attentional processes, and memory. When we are in a state of stress, we literally become a different person—a person who is in a guarded state, mobilized for action against a broad number of potential threats.