Where does stress come from?

Everyone knows that odd feeling. You’re kind of tensed, unfocused, probably biting your lip, scratching your face and your neck, your abdominal muscles are rigid, you breathe shallowly… It’s stress.

The evolution of the human brain has given us many benefits. Indeed, the neocortex, “the logical brain” is what differentiates between us and our animal comrades. We have the capacity to think, to plan, to analyse, to deduce. This is what allows us to make bridges, build instruments, write books and surf 9gag. But the original feeling of stress every animal experiences is still here, and there is something weirdly annoying going on with it.

If you look at the symptoms I listed, and if you google the medical definition of stress (“a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension” source), you see that these are the manifestations of the same “fight or flight” response, namely, “a complex¬†reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.”

So in a nutshell, stress is when something makes your body produce a lot of weird chemicals in order to keep you strong and fast, and thereby, alive.

Let’s see what’s wrong with this picture.

On the left hand side, this is your genetically more or less identical great-great-great-(…)-grandmom. On the right hand side is what caused her stress.

I credit Wait But Why with the idea of drawing ancestor stickmen in Paint.

I credit Wait But Why with the idea of drawing ancestor stickmen in Paint.

You would be pretty callous to blame your great great great grandmom for being stressed out with no reason. During her time, it was good that she’d feel stressed because if she ever got into contact with an animal instrument of death and destruction, that stress would be what got her out of that situation. She would be stronger and faster, and quite honestly, that’s what made us survive in the first place.

Now let’s see what’s usually going on today. On your left hand side is you. On your right hand side is what is (usually) your greatest stressor.

Notice any similarities?

Notice any similarities?

Do you ever notice the connection between thoughts and stress? Usually, stress is accompanied by a disarray of thoughts – stupid, unnecessary thoughts. Many claim that getting in control of your thoughts (through meditation) gets you in control of your stress.

I think it’s only a part of the equation.

You see, this sort of stress, which is not induced by big fucking animals trying to eat you, is basically always perceived stress.

Usually, a situation is not stressful in and by itself: it’s perceived as stressful. Some people do fine in situations other people see as stressful. It’s pretty clear-cut: we create our own stress through our perception of the world.

If you see the world as inherently stressful, you will be stressed out by it. If you see the world as inherently peaceful, you won’t be stressed out by it. Sounds simple, but it’s a bit hard to get there.

Studies like this one have shown that mindfulness meditation helps with diminishing our perception of stress and increasing the sense of control. So if it were only as simple as meditating and starting to perceive the world as non-stressful, it would be all the solution we need.

But I fear not. You see, there is another component to stress, at least in my personal case. It’s the problem of conflicted motivation. I’ll explain on my personal example with time:

The first and basic conflict is this: I want to have free time, and I want to have fulfilled time. Obviously, this is not possible, for if you have one, then, by definition, you cannot have the other. The second conflict is this: when doing something, I want to do another thing. And since it would be highly ineffective to try to do both at the same time, I must do one or the other, thereby losing time for the thing I’m not working on.

For some reason, I feel stressed by this. I feel as if Time flies by, and I’m slow in doing whatever I’m doing and I’m losing my time and I’m wasting my life.

This kind of thinking is dumb. Pure and simple. It’s dumb because it’s not true.

Buddhists would say that in order to solve this problem, I should get rid of my wants and wishes, for they are the cause of my suffering. I don’t think so. Wanting something means that you have a will for something. If you never want anything at all, it means that you have no will for anything at all, and such a life I’m not inclined to live.

The solution to this problem (which I believe many people have, but not all are aware of) is actually pretty simple:

Give weight to your decisions.

You basically freak out because you think you should be doing the other thing, and if you were doing the other thing, you’d freak out because you think you should be doing the first thing. Stop doing so through DECIDING for one course of action and acknowledging that it was the best decision and that anything else is just lying to yourself.

If you have to do A and B, and you can only do one, give it some thought, figure out which has the priority and then proceed with doing whatever it is that has the greater priority. Simply forget about B if your working on A. Give your decision to work on A some weight. Don’t treat it like “oh… but maybe I could have gone with B… I dunno…”


If you chose A, then you chose A, period, full stop, end of story. If you chose B, you chose B.

Do not fret over if it was a bad decision and do not falter in your decision – unless you get new information that makes you change your mind.

Otherwise, chose one or the other, and stick to your decision. This technique, however, has a problem in it. It demands complete honesty. If you are not capable of admitting to yourself why you are choosing a certain course of action, you might not do the good thing if you employ this technique. It is key that you are always absolutely honest in why you decide A and not B, and B and not A.

For example, this morning, I was presented by a choice: write this blog post or study for an upcoming exam. I find that both are equally valuable choices and I can only do one at a time. I want to write this post because I haven’t written any in the preceding weeks, and I want to study for the exam because I want to get rid of it. Both are good options, both are necessary, both are valuable… Seeing that I do have some time on my hands before the exam, I decided to write the post. I did not stop every 5 minutes thinking if I should maybe stop and go study. I will study afterwards (and while doing so, I will not wonder every 5 minutes if I should maybe be exercising).

Decide and then do, don’t question yourself. Change your course of action only if you have new information that changes your mind. Otherwise, keep going.

The idea for the Paint drawings was taken from the page Wait But Why which I wholeheartedly recommend as it is both hilarious and highly educating.


One thought on “Where does stress come from?

  1. Pingback: You are exactly where you want to be | Becoming overhuman

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