Stress is psychological, but not just “in your head.” Stress is also profoundly biological. When we are stressed, hormones are released into the bloodstream like adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones mobilize the body to help us fight or run (flight) from threats to our lives.
Our bodies evolved when most threats were very physical, like a tiger on the savanna. But nowadays most of our threats are psychological, abstract, and long-term. The boss yelling at you kicks off the same fight-flight biological reaction as if you just saw a tiger stalking you and preparing to pounce. Yet running out of the room screaming or physically fighting your boss probably aren’t the best responses to that situation.
If we remain in a chronic state of stress as so many people do in modern society, these stress hormones act as poisons, lowering immunity, contributing to ill health, and even causing many of the “diseases of civilization” which are the main threats to human lives in developed nations today.
Stress is also not simply a problem of the stressed-out individual. Stress is a social phenomenon as well.
Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky’s work with baboons shows that primates which are higher on the hierarchy have fewer stress hormones and thus get sick less often. Research from the British government confirms this in humans. Employees higher on the social hierarchy get sick less often and report less stress, as well as have lower concentrations of stress hormones in their blood than employees lower on the hierarchy.
The following very entertaining documentary program is about an hour long, but I highly recommend watching it for learning about the social aspect of stress. (Ignore the first few minutes of fear-mongering — the rest is quite good.)
Stress: A Biological, Psychological, and Social Phenomenon
I have a history of stress because I have a history of being bullied. During my youth I was low on the human primate status hierarchy relative to the other primates around me. In part this is due to being different. As a kid, I had sensory processing problems and Asperger’s symptoms, as well as stomach and digestive difficulties making me unusually thin. I also had strange obsessions and interests that differed from my peers. In other words, I was a geek.
Most people who are prone to high stress have some history of being bullied or abused, perhaps having full-blown PTSD, or are otherwise low status in society. Being a white, middle-class, college-educated male, I’m already fairly high status however, so I don’t have nearly the stressors of living in a ghetto or worse yet in absolute poverty as a billion people still live globally.
Within a primate hierarchy, only the alpha male benefits, while all other primates have significant stress levels from being chased around, smacked, bitten, and basically bullied and abused. Within human groupings, it is impossible to be the #1 global alpha male however, so aspiring alphas seek to dominate, bully, and abuse the other males and females that they encounter within their families and communities. Unfortunately a lot of personal development material aimed towards men (especially dating or “PUA” stuff) encourages acting “alpha.” Could there be a better way?
Sapolsky’s primates found a more equitable and less stressful, less hierarchal way to live when the alpha males all died out from eating tuberculosis infected food from a local dump. The baboons, freed from the status games of alpha males, spent less time harassing each other and more time grooming. New males that joined this changed primate culture at first were aggressive, but then quickly adapted to fit the more equitable culture of the group. Similarly, a more equitable and just economic and political system, along with basic rule of law and greatly reduced violence can decrease stress for human primates. Large inequalities of wealth must be prevented or redistributed, and employees given power to make decisions which affect them so they can feel in control of their lives.
Internal and External Hierarchies
Since the 1900’s, much of personal development and self help has encouraged the creation of an inner dominator hierarchy, where one part of ourselves rules ruthlessly over all the others. The conscious mind is encouraged to rule over the body or the emotions, or various sexual or aggressive drives. Willpower is often thought of as the key to self mastery, but this is quite often conceived of as an aggressive will, as one part of myself dominating or overriding another part of myself.
A different view of willpower could be created, that of “I Will Power,” which is to say the power to congruently decide to do something, to say I will do an action and then to actually do it. If we first ask, “Do I want the results of this action?” and then “Can I do it?”, we can align our will with our desired outcomes and abilities. Then when we ask ourselves, “Will I do it?” we can check to notice if there are any inner objections, or whether we are congruently willing to proceed. Rather than a stiff upper lip or a teeth-gritting willpower, this I Will Power is more respectful of all parts of ourselves, less of a dominator hierarchy and more of a consensus between varying drives, values, and goals.
The method of Core Transformation, created by Connirae Andreas, is the most powerful and effective method I am aware of for discovering an inner wholeness where all parts of one’s self can be welcomed and integrated. This method is the opposite of personal change methods that try to make one part of ourselves good and holy and other parts bad and to be gotten rid of.
An inner dominator hierarchy only takes a few seconds to form — all one has to do is identify with part of one’s self and make another part bad or wrong. Steven Pressfield, historical fiction author and creativity guru, has even personified the part of himself that he doesn’t like as an evil being he calls “Resistance” in his popular book The War of Art. Again, could there be a better way than to conceive of personal growth than as a war between parts of myself, or between me and aspects of the outside world? I think perhaps there could be.
Appreciating all parts of ourselves and integrating them fully into a whole and complete Being takes a little longer than simply overpowering part of ourselves through force. Instead of a few seconds, it might take 90 minutes or more for one specific issue using Core Transformation, or in my personal experience several years and hundreds of practice sessions, welcoming even the parts of myself that I hated, to really initiate a new paradigm within myself. But ultimately it may save time, as one can act with one’s whole Being with compassion and clarity, avoiding striving for things which won’t ultimately make one happy, ending inner conflicts and discovering a lasting sense of inner peace.
As Within, So Without
We project outwards how we are structured inwards. If we cultivate self-aggression, making our doubts and fears into enemies as many personal development methods espouse, then people who doubt or fear our chosen goals become our outward enemies. If we practice dominating parts of ourselves, we will inevitably try to dominate, bully, and abuse others who are similar to these parts of ourselves which we don’t like.
If instead we choose to welcome all parts of ourselves, looking for and discovering their deeper positive intentions, we can find powerful goodness at the heart of every aspect of our Being. When we then move through the world, we are more likely to find that we treat others with respect and kindness and seek consensus and agreement rather than domination and submission.
By integrating the information from all parts of ourselves, we also literally become smarter. We stop ignoring things and start including all the relevant information, thus more able to make a complete picture of the situation. Imagine a boss which ignores critical feedback again and again, versus a manager who consistently asks for and integrates feedback (including complaints from customers and employees) as well as shares profit with all employees. If it can be done successfully, the latter is simply more inclusive, more intelligent, and indeed better than the former.
Similarly, on a global scale there are people who are not being included. In the general trend towards things becoming better, some people are left out of the rising economic tide which is said to lift all boats. Living on less than a dollar a day, lacking access to clean water, and having to contend with malaria is very stressful. The good news is that when we ourselves are less stressed, we can feel more resourceful and able to help relieve the stresses of others. Social justice and personal transformation can share the same aim: to include and appreciate all perspectives as we strive towards greater wholeness and care for all beings.
This is naturally a kind of ecological thinking as well. Rather than seeing “nature” as something to merely dominate and exploit or a place to dump our waste, by seeking to include all perspectives into the mix (including aesthetic, non-human life, etc.) we are more likely to address more concerns and prevent certain kinds of ecological problems.
The causes of stress and thus solutions are psychological, but also biological and indeed social. Social justice efforts to create societies that provide for human dignity are as much factors in stress relief as proper nutrition, yoga classes, and psychological healing techniques like Core Transformation.
If you’d like to find out if Core Transformation or the I Will Power method (also called The Integrity Strategy) might be helpful for you, click the link below to schedule a free 15 minute call:
And you might also consider pledging a percentage of your income to help end global poverty. Find out more and take the pledge here.