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Differentiating between saber-toothed tigers and bad habits

Highlighting research that shows how chronically activating the stress mechanism can damage the immune system, the cardiovascular system, and the brain, conventional wisdom declares stress as a killer disease (Manzies, 2005; Oz, 2009). However, this perspective ignores research offers a functional perspective for enhancing wellness when people mediate adverse perceptions of and reactions to events.

Jeanette Norden (2007), a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist, asserted that the way people emotionally experience and interpret the world “has a profound effect on our physical and mental health,” while everyday stressors do not cause harm (pp. 3-152). Brain research is showing the effects stress has on the human system; the damage from stress is caused mostly by internal factors, not by external events.

For example, damaging stress usually results from firing the stress mechanism continuously for everyday events when no real danger exists. Stress results from an individual’s perceptions and reactions to an event; an event does not cause stress. In other words, damaging stress is caused more by people’s habitual reactions to events than by events. Fortunately, neurology is also showing how bad habits that contribute to stress-related illness can be unlearned while demonstrating how people are capable of learning adaptability strategies that can enhance wellness and creative longevity.

False alarms

Arkowitz and Lilienfield (2008) said that people could develop a panic disorder when their fight-or-flight mechanism becomes conditioned to respond to false alarms, which are situations in which no danger exists. For example, a speeding car approaching on a collision course is a danger; sitting in commute traffic is not. However, some people develop a habit of firing the fight-or-flight mechanism throughout uneventful commutes. “When we experience true or false alarms, we tend to associate the biological and psychological reactions they elicit with cues that were present at the time. These associations become ‘learned alarms’ that can evoke further panic” (p. 79). In other words, a common dysfunctional coping strategy modern humans develop is a habit of interpreting insignificant events as if they were impending collisions.

Norden (2007) explained that both genetic and environmental factors influence how people experience, interpret, and react to perceived stressors. Children develop coping skills based on their personality and temperaments; they carry these coping skills into their adult lives. Although coping skills are an individual construct, family, culture, religion, context, and other factors contribute to developing coping strategies. These coping strategies seem to influence how people interpret events as stressful or incidental, and reactions to perceived threats become habitual.

When people respond habitually and continuously to insignificant stressors as though they are extreme events, they are stoking a fire that is designed for short-term use in extraordinary circumstances. This fire needs to be balanced with rest, mediated with perspective, and integrated with functional strategies for successfully adapting to and interacting with a dynamic environment. Norden says that people need to stop reacting to “everyday stressors as though they were saber-toothed tigers” (2007, pp. 3-151).


Unless the event is an extreme stressor—like prolonged physical abuse, imprisonment in a concentration camp, abject poverty, a natural disaster, or combat—the individual’s perception of the event is what causes harm, not the event. The importance of perception seems to be a common theme in literature that supports adaptability strategies. For example, Aldwin (1994) found that a strong and complex link exists between an individual’s ability to cope and stress-related illness. He proposed that life changes brought on by stressful events may be influenced more by how a person faces and deals with the stress than by the event. Likewise, Kreitner and Kinkicki (2008) emphasized research showing that perceptions influence how people interpret, appraise, and categorize situations as irrelevant, positive, or negative.

Individual factors that moderate adverse consequences from stress include coping strategies, control perceptions, self-esteem, and social support. However, these variables may not be universal. Culture, experience, context, and other factors can influence how people perceive, experience, and deal with stress (Aldwin & Revenson, 1987). People who have developed a habit of triggering the stress mechanism for insignificant events can suffer chronic stress that damages the system and restricts their capacity to cope with serious events (Norden, 2007). [See IMAGE 1 for Norden’s Psychological State and Wellness diagram].

New tricks for old dogs

Two key insights from neurology that suggest functional coping strategies are that:

  1. stress is triggered by known events that can be identified and understood within a proper framework, and
  2. much of the stress modern people suffer results from misfiring the fight-or-flight mechanism.

Identifying and understanding the triggers can help to reduce anxiety, provide a sense of predictability, lay a foundation for functional coping, and advance adaptability. The underlying mechanics of conditioning and the stress response helps explain the danger of misfiring the stress system and offers a framework for re-conditioning reactions and behaviors (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2008).

Gaining control

For those who promote or rely on the “I can’t help myself; it’s just the way I am” coping strategy, neurology offers an alternative by showing how the brain is incredibly malleable. In other words, the brain can learn until it achieves a stress-free state--which only exists in death (Bertalanffy, 1972; Selye, 1956; Capra, 1996). This means people can break the stress habit and develop functional adaptability strategies that allow them to manage stress to foster brain development and creative longevity (Cohen, 2006; Fischer & Rose, 1998).

According to Norden (2007): “If we have habits that lead to prolonged stress and if we have a prolonged [and negative]… emotional response to life events, we need to learn other habits” (pp. 3-160). The plasticity of the brain means that people can retrain themselves to have different emotional responses to perceived stressors. People can use emotions to help them make correct choices about how they respond to events. “Some of it is genetic, some is learned; some are just bad habits” that people can change (pp. 3-160).

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