Evolution, Stress and Survival

It's hard to put recent human history into proper context when it comes to the development of the brain and its ability to cope with its surroundings. They say that 'life is a jungle' but few realise how literal this is when it comes to evolutionary psychophysiology given that many of our brain structures were formed and forged over eons when our ancestors struggled to survive in jungle and savannah environments.

Some 300,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens evolved in East Africa and over the next 230,000 years spread to become the last hominid standing (literally) rising to dominate the planet.

However, even these 300 millennia years are a fraction of the 1.8million years since Homo Erectus first learned how to make fire, to capture food and cook it, to gather around fire for warmth in communicating social groups. 'Work' over these vast expanses of time was a hard and brutal struggle consisting of eating, hunting, fighting and simply staying alive. It was activity on the very first rung on the hierarchy of needs.

We developed our fight, flight and freeze instincts as short cuts to stay alive more efficiently than considering too hard.

As Julian F. Thayer et al put it in their excellent 2011 paper A meta-analysis of heart rate variability and neuroimaging studies: Implications for heart rate variability as a marker of stress and health

"To illustrate the fundamental importance of threat appraisal, imagine one of our ancestors walking in the woods. She sees something coiled on the path ahead—it could be a harmless vine or it could be a deadly snake. What is the appropriate, adaptive response? Our protagonist may assume that the path is safe and proceeds ahead, but if she is wrong, it may be the last choice she makes. On the other hand, if she assumes the amorphous shape is a threat, she will surely live to walk another day and perhaps pro- create, passing on her genes to future generations. Thus, both the short-term and long-term adaptive response is to assume that the coiled object is a threat, and such appraisals can be made rapidly and without much deliberation."

In short, we survived better by responding to the unknown as threat. The issue today is that work is full of threats on various levels and it is likely that deep structures of our brains are still responding like those of our ancestors when it comes to stress response.

But when did 'work' as we know it start? With agrarian society where humans worked in groups to farm and cultivate food? Or perhaps, we should look later to times when knowledge transfer, management and more complex work hierarchies and tools emerged. Whichever, when it comes to the brain that's still not that much time on an evolutionary timescale for. So how should we look at work stress?

Well, we have learned not to attack fellow workers physically when they threaten us but make no mistake, when any sort of threat appears at work, it engages our sympathetic nervous system. The psychophysiology of unknown potential rivals in the jungle - where inaction could rapidly result in the loss of food sources, territory and sexual partners - occurs just the same in the office (the office party in particular... hence all the fights and tears!)

The issue for all of us is that 'threat' engages our SNS. We can't help it. Our hearts quicken, our GSR rises, our muscles tense. And if this happens frequently at work then the requisite balance between our sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PSNS) systems can easily shift out of whack with stress at work to the point where our sleep is affected, our digestion ruffled and our overall wellness compromised. We recognise stress but often fail to engage with it.

The rapid rise in breathing and sleep-facilitating apps and wearables is a fascinating phenomenon because most of them - boiled down - are interventions to help re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system and address the balance. The contraction that causes inhalation is controlled by the SNS putting a brief 'brake' on the Vagus nerve which is then released on exhalation.

Often on Twitter and health blogs there is discussion of 4-7-8 breathing, 'Box' breathing and other resonant breating techniques. Effectively, each has us using conscious control of our breathing to force the PSNS to remain active for a multiple of the time the SNS is active...thus restoring some short term balance to stressful situations.

At the heart of Adeki's philosophy is more active (and less short term) monitoring and management of this balance in your work, sport or personal life. As the member of the Adeki team who has had most exposure to business stress, I can vouch for the value of taking back some control over Autonomic Nervous System balance to help you cope better, live better and feel better.

Ade Chairman, Adeki

Adrian Webb