Stress is reported as one of the significant ‘modern diseases’, and it plays a massive role in dragging people out of their peak performance states into less resourceful ones.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s response to being forced to operate outside its ‘comfort zone’. When we perceive that we are outside our comfort zone, the body responds with increased response preparedness, arousal and focus to help us ‘cope’ until we’re back to where we feel comfortable.

Are we designed to cope with stress?

Humans are designed to operate across a range of circumstances — a flexibility based on an individual’s tolerance around normal set-points or standards, reflecting the normal ‘ups and downs’ of their environment. However, when a person experiences or perceives stressors outside this ‘comfort zone’, a stress response is induced.

When we reach a critical threshold of acute stress, the brain invokes its most primitive survival responses and completely bypasses the cognitive mechanisms of the prefrontal cortex, which shows up as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Stress is a perfectly acceptable response when a person is under true threat. The change in physiology and cognitive process acts to prepare the person to take action, and to focus exclusively on the issues at hand (decreases distraction by non-relevant things). When the stressor is removed, the body no longer needs to create the stress response and the person can calm down again. However, consider a person in a modern urban scenario. They feel ‘stressed’ at work, stressed in the traffic, stressed by their social circumstances. They are always running moderate levels of stress, with the occasional ‘spike’ into acute stress as specific situations arise. This impacts on their ability to think and act — and instead just respond.

If stress thresholds are reached, individuals will simply react to that stressor with instinctive and primitive responses. In a modern world, stressors that are emotional, social and psychological — and pose no true physical threat — can easily be evaluated as above threshold and reacted to as if they pose a real physical threat, and the physiological effects and ‘fight or flight’ responses are invoked.

What are the outcomes of the stress response?

We are so used to describing stress as a ‘negative’ — something that has to be diminished or removed — that often the benefit of being put under stress is overlooked. From the cognitive processing of stressors it is clear that people are designed to be stressed, and it can actually be good for us.

In response to a stressor, there are three key outcomes:

  • A ‘fragile’ response, where the stressor provides damage or degradation. We drop an egg and it smashes.
  • A ‘resilient’ response, where the stressor is tolerated and the system returns to normal afterward. A spring bends under load, but bounces back when the stress is removed.
  • An ‘anti-fragile’ response, where the stressor invokes learning and growth in the person. You can’t do a push-up, but you keep training and soon you can do 10.

As Darwin suggested, organisms that can respond to change stressors with learning and coping are more able to deal with selection pressures and survive. Therefore, the anti-fragile response is the most valuable, evolutionary adaptive response to a stressor. (Note: the anti-fragile concept was first introduced by economist N. Taleb)

Knowing that there are different responses that can be taken to stressors allows us to change the way we manage the stress of modern life.

How can we ‘manage’ stress? Stress is simply the internally generated response to the cognitive evaluation of a stressor, against the size and nature of the stressor and the capacity of the individual to cope.

3 potential ways that an individual can ‘manage’ stress:

  1. Reduce or modify the stressors that come to bear upon them (changing how the person is exposed to stressors in their environment.)
  2. Reinterpret the stressor so that is evaluated differently — especially in ways to shift its evaluation to higher functions (out of primitive fight or flight reflex responses).
  3. Respond to the stressor in anti-fragile ways — by learning and adapting to the stressor, so that managing it in future becomes something that is within your comfort zone.

The true step to having anti-fragile responses to stressors is to take the time to reflect and learn. Without this, we can only ever be resilient. We can cope with the stress, until it is removed. However, if we can learn to adapt how we work under that stress, the stress no longer poses a problem and our flexibility and breadth of adaptive skills increased. As we do this, we can perform better across a broad range of circumstances and increase our overall effectiveness.