Chapter 2: Persistent Adaptations to Chronic Stress
We are Survival Machines for Self-replicating Molecules
Our bodies and brains were not designed to progress toward optimality. They were not designed to provide our conscious minds with pleasure. Although they are capable of finding peace, they were not constructed to do so. In fact, our bodies were meant to endure and internalize environmental hardship to ensure that our genes perpetuate. A bad environment causes an organism to deviate from an optimal body plan, to restrict growth, to restrict movement, to restrict quality of life. This leads us to a humbling conclusion: that our bodies were not designed for our personal enjoyment, rather they were designed to preserve the genes no matter what the cost. They not only endure injuries and hardships, but actually manufacture their own physical impairments in response. The next section will look at why organisms retain trauma in response to stress.
The Body Adapts to Chronic Stress
All life forms, from microorganisms to monkeys, respond to stressors with innate biological programs. They are prepared to alter their body and their life strategy if they encounter environments that are highly stressful. This is a form of non-Darwinian adaptation that takes place without natural selection in a single individual. Every one of us has the potential to become highly stress-adapted, and this could potentially happen to you in a matter of months if you were exposed to extreme hardship. The DNA (genotype) does not change; however the body (phenotype) changes. The changes allow conformation to occasional but regularly recurring environmental pressures – usually stressors. These changes can be either transient or permanent and are examples of a scientific concept called phenotypic plasticity (Pigliucci, 2001). Your genes set up the blueprint and the foundation, but the environment influences how soundly your structure is built. This means that your fundamental nature (good, bad, calm, anxious etc.) is undetermined, and that you are determining it (your future self) right now.
Phenotypic plasticity is any change in the body, good or bad, that is mediated by changes in gene expression as a response to the environment. When I say gene expression I am referring to the process where the body’s cells determine that a certain protein is needed, they find the gene that encodes the protein in the DNA and use it to build the protein. Actually the DNA for the gene is “transcribed” into RNA, and then shuttled outside of the cell nucleus to ribosomes which use the RNA as a template to “translate” it into protein.
“DNA to RNA to protein” is often called the “central dogma” of molecular biology. For example, muscle growth in response to exercise uses new proteins created by gene expression and so is a case of phenotypic plasticity. When your eyes adapt to darkness, cells in the retina must find the rhodopsin gene and use it to build the rhodopsin protein necessary to allow the eyes to temporarily see better in the dark. The production of breast milk involves expressing milk proteins within the breast tissue that are not expressed before pregnancy. Tanning involves the production of the protein pigment melanin. But not all of these changes are good for us. Muscle tension and strain incites protein expression that changes the muscle making it hard, inflexible and limiting its range of motion. Shallow breathing becomes persistent because the body adapts using gene expression to retune the breathing apparatus to become maximally efficient at shallow breathing. Every instance of long-term learning in the brain (neuroplasticity) involves physical changes to the nervous system that necessitate protein expression. Unconscious threat areas of the brain are restructured and potentiated by chronic stress. Stress results in the expression of a large variety of different proteins, in organs throughout the body and brain, which are not ordinarily expressed. These proteins are used in defensive structures, defensive maneuvers, defensive behaviors, and the creation of a defensive mind state.
Simple single-cell organisms respond to stress (excessive heat, starvation, and abrupt chemical changes in their environment) by tweaking their body plan. Molecular cues that they pick up cause them to express genes that may otherwise be dormant, causing molecular changes within their cell walls in an effort to respond to the stressor at hand. Even in the simplest organisms like bacteria and protists these emergency changes have costs. Resources are funneled towards responding to the crisis rather than to longevity and upkeep. All organisms do this constantly to different degrees on a minute-to-minute basis.
Especially if they are triggered early in development, adaptive responses to stress can result in profound changes in animals. For example, phenotypic plasticity is responsible for the variant body types occurring in certain beetle populations. Under conditions of nutritional scarcity developing males have the ability alter their body type becoming far smaller, weaker, and hornless. Their metabolism is lower and they utilize “sneaky” reproductive tactics. This morph has better reproductive success, but only, of course, in environments where food is scarce (DeWitt & Scheiner, 2004). Another example is the water flea daphnia. If a developing water flea is exposed to chemical traces of its natural predator it will develop an elaborate protective armor. This armor protects it, but is a cumbersome liability if there are no predators around.
A. A horned beetle and smaller hornless beetle; B. Water fleas without and with protective armoring
Decades of experiments have shown that the offspring of nervous mammal mothers are themselves biologically programmed to be more nervous. Exposing rat mothers to adversity before, during or after pregnancy will permanently upregulate the stress system of their babies. Prenatal stress up-regulates the adrenal system of offspring causing higher blood concentrations of stress hormones in mammals from rats (Lin et al., 1998), to monkeys (Schneider et al., 1999). Mammals with raised stress/adrenal systems are particularly susceptible to stress, reacting to only mildly threatening stimuli with highly exaggerated responses. This often lasts throughout their life. These forms of phenotypic plasticity are often called “predictive, adaptive responses.” They are considered predictive because it is a safe bet for an organism to assume that if its mother’s environment was hostile, then the environment it will encounter is likely to be hostile as well. On the other hand, rat pups born to calm mothers tend to be very calm. Those that receive high levels of maternal care in the form of grooming and nursing show increased resiliency to stress.
All mammals begin to adapt plastically to stress in the womb, and continue to do so throughout life. The body’s cells are constantly searching for cues about predation and social competition. Upon encountering these cues resting heart rate is turned up, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, muscles grow tense, and the brain is retuned to make the animal angry, fearful and paranoid. Humans make these same alterations in their body plan in response to stress (Saplosky, 1996). These can be subtle, microscopic changes or profound, obvious changes. They can be transient, or they can remain throughout the lifespan.
You can visually recognize the ravages of stress in people that are extremely paranoid, highly traumatized, drug addicted, or on the bottom of the social totem pole. The main thing these people share in common is that their stress system, known as the sympathetic nervous system, has been turned up too high, for too long.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The autonomic nervous system is a branch of our nervous system that controls the function of our internal organs. It effects the heart, lungs, various organs in our abdomen, skin, muscles and many areas of the brain. It generally influences our organs to either prepare for stress as in the flight-or-fight state, or for calm as in the resting-and-digesting state. The fight or flight state is associated with the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and the “rest-and-digest” state is associated with the parasympathetic branch. These two systems are constantly working together to maintain homeostasis in an effort to meet organismic needs. They always work in unison but usually one is dominant creating the dichotomy between rest and activity. Both are necessary, for health and normal functioning.
The activity of the sympathetic nervous system rises when we feel stressed, lowers when we feel calm, and is permanently turned up in anxiety disorders. The sympathetic nervous system can become toxic when it is augmented by phenotypic plasticity. This is when the body builds stress-adapted proteins into various organ systems to keep you locked in a perpetual state of stress that scientists call “hyperarousal.”
Scientists describe the retuning of the autonomic system toward stress as an imbalance that equates to a “shift toward sympathetic dominance.” So as not to confuse this concept with social dominance, here we will call it “sympathetic upregulation.” This is the antagonist of our story and it is an adversary for each one of us to different extents. As you might expect, inferior and submissive mammals usually have higher sympathetic upregulation. What is more, the upregulation of the sympathetic system is almost always a ratchet, meaning that shifts toward sympathetic upregulation are usually steady and irreversible. This is partly because many things teach us to breathe more shallowly, but very few teach us to breathe more deeply. Figure 3 below details the physiological changes associated with both branches of the autonomic system.
Figure 1: The Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Branches
If I were to walk over to my cat and bang my fist on the counter where he was sitting, his autonomic nervous system would react strongly, raising his sympathetic activity. This would be very apparent in the form of a full body startle, and increased defensive activity. After a few minutes his autonomic activity would go back to baseline (but repeated threatening surprises would shift this baseline toward sympathetic upregulation). If someone were to make a loud, unexpected noise next to me, I would also experience transiently increased autonomic arousal. Humans share a common ancestor with cats 85 million years ago. This funny-looking little mammal would have been contemporaneous with dinosaurs and would have had an autonomic nervous system very similar to ours. But the autonomic nervous system is much more ancient than this.
If you were to find a group of ants walking around on a table top, and strike the surface that they were walking on, they would freeze for an instant and then, run about their business in a frenzy. The neural components that receive and interpret the quick blow to the table top are very different in structure and orientation from our own. However, mammals and insects both inherit their autonomic nervous systems from a common ancestor (Miller 1997) that lived around 590 million years ago, near the end of the Precambrian supereon. Not all animals have the autonomic stress system. Sessile animals that live their lives attached to a rock such as corals, sea squirts, and anemones have no use for it. Even some primitive mobile animals such as jellyfish also lack this system. We should consider ourselves blessed to have it, we just have to bring it under control.
A. Ant; B. Mouse; C. Goldfish
Turned up too high, the sympathetic system is very inefficient because it retunes all of the organs for intense, uninterrupted physical exertion. Our disproportionate stress might be appropriate if we were forced to burn four thousand calories per day, or even if we had to fight for our lives on a minute to minute basis. But none of us do this in modern times. Our sympathetic system is set very high so that we can sit on our butts most of the day. To bring the sympathetic and parasympathetic back into balance, we must reinforce the parasympathetic system. This is accomplished by spending more time with the parasympathetic prevailing over the sympathetic system. How can we accentuate the parasympathetic system? Relaxation. But relaxation can be one of the most difficult things in the world. Every time we try to relax, negative thoughts intrude, speeding up our heart and breathing rates, keeping us locked within sympathetic jurisdiction. The key to parasympathetic relaxation is diaphragmatic breathing, but there are other keys as well. Let’s start with the way we appraise surprise.
Stress and the Startle Reflex
When a stimulus quickly increases sympathetic output we experience startle. The startle is a panic reflex, initiated by the brainstem, that lasts for a fraction of a second (from 20 to 500 milliseconds). It can be elicited by threating thoughts or threatening stimuli such as loud sounds or fast moving objects. When it happens our heart rate increases. The next heart beat comes early, this is jolting and is often described as the heart “skipping a beat.” During startle the breath is also prematurely interrupted. Meaning that an exhalation will switch to an inhalation (or vice versa) before it is completed making the breath shallower. The body’s muscles tense up during startle and the most frail spinal segments jerk in a jarring way. Multiple startles or startles of sufficient magnitude will leave your muscles very tense, with very fast heart rate, and very shallow breath. Sustained fearfulness sensitizes the startle pathway explaining why anxious people are much more startle prone. The submissive person will almost always experience more startling than the dominant person. You cannot look someone in the eye with a straight face and decent posture after you have been startled. Once another animal sees you startle or tremble you immediately become the prey.
The full body startle is accompanied by specific movements in mammals intended to protect certain body parts such as the neck and eyes. In human infants the eyes blink, the face grimaces, the back arches, the arms and legs flail out with elbow and knees bent. Every adult has their own startle posture that has been fashioned by their past. Different people do various things including: flinch, cower, wince, slump over, flail, duck, back pedal, drop things they are holding, or exhibit buckling of the knees. Aggressive people may throw objects, or strike out. In high-level military, police, and martial arts training combatants are drilled to assume specific fighting stances when startled.
The possibility of modifying the startle reflex has not been acknowledged by mainstream science but is clearly feasible. Buddhist monks have demonstrated significant inhibition of startle (Levenson et al., 2012). Some barely flinch at all. With introspection and patience we can learn to inhibit our startle magnitude and reduce our emotional reaction to it. Through repetition we can also determine the automatic movement pattern that is recruited. When your startle posture is indicative of surrender people and animals can see this. In fact, the way you carry yourself at startle affects your default posture, and comes to dictate aspects of your personality.
The discussion of optimal postures in this book will help you determine what you want your startle posture to consist of. The exercises here will also reduce your susceptibility to startle. I believe that the best way to reduce propensity for startle is the diaphragmatic breathing retraining regimen in this book. It will subdue startle, place you into parasympathetic upregulation, and ultimately force your unconscious body language to become nonsubmissive. There are many reasons to start now.
Stress Upregulation and Chakra-like Modules
Over the course of months or years elevated activation of the stress response can be highly detrimental to health (McEwan & Stellar, 1993). This is called stress adaptation and it reallocates the use of available resources in a way that hinders the organism in the long term. This is because most responses to stress are desperate efforts to keep the organism alive just a bit longer. The changes sacrifice long-term investments in health, and biological maintenance for intense short-term expenditures. It’s an ecological wager that acknowledges that the organism will likely not survive for years in the present environment, but may be able to survive long enough to reproduce one more time. Our modern bodies are making this same pitiful wager even though it is completely unnecessary in today’s environment. The stress response bought our ancestors a little more time to replicate but today causes us strife, ill health, and sacrifices longevity.
It is not just an upregulated stress system that is adaptive in adverse environments. As we will discuss, anxiety and depression can be adaptive. Chronic muscular tension, pain and trauma can be adaptive. These things make us fearful, worked up, and self-focused. This is exactly how you would want to act in a hostile environment. Unfortunately, the reproductive success of an animal in a bad environment actually benefits from its physical and emotional pain. It is an antiquated and anachronistic system. It can be seen as a stone age (or even a Mesozoic) way of recognizing and remembering whether the environment is good or bad.
A. Schema for organ regulation by sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system revs up a number of organs. Each of these organs are specialized for responding to different forms of environmental stress. Some people hold more trauma in the stomach while others hold more in the face. Each person has a different trauma setting, for each of dozens of modules, and hundreds of muscles. This gives everyone a unique pattern of overall strengths and weaknesses. Some of these modules correspond to functional structures, such as the swallowing apparatus, the muscles of urinary control, or the voice box. Some modules may correspond to plexuses, which are localized branching networks of nerves, such as the pharyngeal plexus, the cardiac plexus, or the solar plexus.
These different anatomical modules overlap with the ancient Hindu/yogic structures called chakras. Chakras are thought to channel energy, and correlate with both body ailments and emotional strengths. Chakras are characterized as pseudoscientific but clearly have some validity. In fact, modern medicine generally acknowledges that the ancient descriptions of chakras bear a remarkable resemblance to modern anatomical descriptions of plexuses. The goal of yogic philosophy is to heal the chakras, and that is the goal here. For example, we all hold tension to different degrees in the muscles that control our vocal tract. This has traumatized our voice box, manifesting as a painful lump in the throat which worsens as stress increases. It diminishes our vocal range and makes our voice weak and hoarse. Healing this is the subject of Chapter 7.
A. Spinal nerve plexuses; B. Yogi with chakras represented by circles; C. Internal organs
Each module has its own mini nervous system and each sends and receives messages to both conscious and unconscious areas of our brain. We are constantly receiving updates from these modules and have the opportunity to send instructions back to them. These are the components of our posture that I was discussing in the last chapter. The extent to which they have been impacted by stress and trauma determines our social displays and our aptitude for composure. These modules have literally been disfigured by phenotypic plasticity. The extent of this disfigurement makes some of us more susceptible to sensations like being “choked up,” the jitters, a “bleeding heart,” “butterflies in the stomach,” “love sickness,” a heavy weight on the chest, and shortness of breath. As we will discuss later, introversion and shyness are attempts to minimize social interaction because the discomfort in these chakras is unbearable. Discomfort in these chakras is the main cause of anger, aggression and the background hum of anxiety.
In most cases we don’t notice the compromised display, the physiological dysfunction, or even the pain caused by it. Neither shy nor angry people understand that their behaviors are being dictated by the discomfort in these chakras. The less you take notice, the more the pain affects your behavior without your awareness. If you neglect to guide attention to the muscles involved, the brain develops a blind spot, or scotoma, for them, making them even harder to self-regulate. This program will help you develop awareness of, and control over, these different modules. We will focus on sensing where the muscles are, whether you are straining them, and how much. The program will also help you learn how to hold them properly while breathing diaphragmatically, so that you can combine them into healthful ways of being.
Often when an individual attempts to withhold submissive displays they leak out on their own. Psychologists call it tension leakage and it occurs when one inadvertently emits signs that imply nervousness or lack of poise. Examples of leakage include cracking of the voice, swallowing at inopportune times, body sway, increased blinking, trembling, fidgeting, stammering, and startling. People who show leakage early in a confrontation are often called “weak” or “soft.” The chakra-like modules are pots that are boiling over, leaking all over the place. People engaging in tension management try to put a lid on the pot, and are constantly cleaning up the leakage. Or they are trying their best to speak louder than the sound of the steam whistling out of the kettle. The activities in this book don’t try to cover up the leakage, they turn the heat down at the stove so that you can exhibit grace under pressure.
Neuroplasticity and Aplysia Californica
One of Earth’s simplest animals provides a great model for trauma. The sea hare Aplysia californica is a large shell-less sea snail (sea slug). It has an involuntary, defensive reflex that it uses to protect its respiratory organs from damage. When the area around its gill is touched the animal retracts the gill up toward its body. This reflex has been used by neuroscientists to research the cellular basis of protective reflexes. Neuroscientist Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work on this reflex in the 1960s and 70s. Aplysia was used in these experiments because it has very large neurons that are easy to study and because the entire nervous system of aplysia has only about 20 thousand neurons (Dudai, 1989). Contrast this with the one million neurons in a cockroach or honey bee, and the 85 billion neurons in the human brain. Despite the small size of its nervous system these simple slugs are prepared to learn carefully about when, and how much to retract its gill. Eric Kandel showed how physical changes in the connections between neurons (synapses) mediate this trauma-learning process.
The retraction reflex (where the slug retracts its gill) exhibits a phenomenon called sensitization whereby the reflex can be potentiated by adding a painful stimulus. If experimenters shock the animal with a small amount of electricity they can teach it to become even more protective of its gill. Animals trained in this way are constantly “on guard” and withdraw their gills more forcefully and for up to four times as long. The slugs on “high alert” generalize the shock to other stimuli and even a benign light touch will produce a powerful withdrawal. Think of its gill and the muscles and nerves involved in retration as a chakra. Aplysia can be trained to become incredibly tense in the muscles surrounding its gills and to overreact to neutral stimuli. This is a pertinent analogy for the way humans learn to become tense in muscles all over the body. Aplysia’s gill retraction reflex is analogous to the reflexes responsible for everything from our tired squinty eyes, to our hoarse voices, to our suppressed sexuality. Ironically though, the sea slugs are traumatized by actual painful stimuli encountered in the ocean, whereas most of our trauma simply comes from the way we interpret social competition.
A. Sea slug Aplysia Californica; B. Aplysia with its gill fully relaxed; C. Aplysia with its gill fully retracted.
Our chakra-like modules have innate defensive reflexes built into them by evolution. The muscles involved become sensitized to trauma and generalize this reaction to benign stimuli just like Aplysia’s gills. But like aplysia’s gills our modules can also be desensitized. For example, when aplysia is touched lightly and repeatedly without being shocked, there is a progressive decrease in the extent of retraction of the gill. The animal learns that there is no negative outcome related to light touching and learns to relax its defensive reflex. Such a decreased reaction to a stimulus is known as desensitization or habituation. Slugs cannot heal their own chakras in this way but humans can. We don’t have researchers prodding us with electrodes, but we do have social contacts that prod us with provocation. This book will teach you how to desensitize your chakra-like modules to their competitive attacks. Diaphragmatic breathing greatly speeds up this desensitization process.
Trauma Devalues Us
The thesis of this book is that because of our molecular heritage and our primate ancestor’s preoccupation with social competition we are highly susceptible to becoming stress adapted. This causes us to hold various lesions in modules throughout the body. It poisons our minds and causes our behavior to be desperate, and vindictive. It causes us to perceive threat when it is not intended, and to appraise real threat as more dire than it really is. Stephen Hawking has argued that humanity is equivalent to “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” I used to think that we were scum in both senses of the world: 1) grotesque, biological waste, and 2) miserable, immoral miscreants. Now I think the symptoms and physical stigmata of stress are what cause us to act reprehensibly. For that reason, I think that they make us scum. In my mind; however, if we can transcend our physical afflictions, we can more easily transcend our propensity for evil. In so doing, we also transcend our lowly biological origins.
In the last chapter we discussed how once we stop sending submissive displays, we no longer have to choose between assertion and aggression because being assertive without being aggressive will become second nature. How is this so? Imagine that you were always blushing, always sneering, and that you always looked like you were about to cry. Imagine how frustrating this would be, and how difficult it would be to come across as assertive. To be assertive you would almost have to be passive aggressive. Right? Chapter 6 will show you that because of the tension we hold in the muscles that surround our cheeks and eyes we all ARE continually on the verge of blushing, sneering and crying. Rehabilitating and unprogramming the tension responsible for such displays will allow you to reach true calmness and composure and will present you with a different option. At this point, you will have to choose between being a good person and being a bad person. You can utilize your newfound composure altruistically or malevolently. At this crossroads, I believe most people will realize that being good is the only real path. This is because once your submissive behaviors have been dismantled it will become clear that they were always the primary drivers for bad behavior.
Competition and the Dominance Hierarchy
Animals that live in social communities or groups must actively compete in the same space for resources. When food, mates, or territory are disputed, the dominant individual will prevail over the subordinate one. Since the discovery of pecking order among hens by Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1922, the status hierarchy has been seen as one of the major forms of social organization in vertebrates. A tiered social system actually helps the group become stable and viable, and on average, is beneficial for each member. Even beneficial for those at the lowest ranks. This is because it minimizes violent aggression over resources by defining the relationships among members. In fact, reproductive fitness is increased in all of the animals involved because the dominance hierarchy discourages physical fighting over food and mates saving time, energy, and reducing the risk of injury.
A stable hierarchy increases peace and harmony in primates, but necessitates constant signaling. Many mammals send out submissive signals even before any direct confrontation occurs. For instance, the subordinate dog will often whimper and place its tail between its legs in response to a direct threat. But even in the absence of any threat, it will carry its head low, tremble slightly, and use a restricted spinal posture all the time.
In primates, being harassed or subjugated by higher-ranking individuals, even without any physical contact, is the major form of stress for many species (Nelson, 2005; Sapolsky, 2005). But it is not just being dominated that is stressful, it is the compensatory responses. Submissive displays activate the body’s sympathetic stress system and create continuous strain on the muscles and other organs responsible for them. In other words, they are not just outward expressions of our pain; rather, they drive and maintain the pain. When the displays become a constant part of our social self-presentation they can be taken as major contributors to our psychological misery.
Submissive and Dominant Displays in Animals
Aggression, and submission are used by almost all animal species from insects to fish to apes. Threatening intimidation displays are meant to impress, making the animal bigger or emphasizing its physical dominance. They involve hair bristling, feather ruffling, raising skin folds, baring teeth, horn displaying, loud sounds, quick and powerful movements, and exaggerated body posture.
When the silverback western gorilla wants to intimidate it will start hooting, throwing objects, pounding its chest, kicking its legs, and running sideways when approached by another male. The fur of dominant chimps stands on end to make them appear larger, and they walk in an exaggeratedly slow and heavy manner. They gallop, run in circles, hit things, do sommersaults, and make all kinds of barking and hooting sounds.
Dominant lizards perform pushups, bobbing their heads up and down, displaying their muscles and athletic prowess for others to see. This display shows off the bright coloring on their throats and sides, and indicates that they are in prime physical condition. Many male lizards stand up high on their legs and arch their back signifying their territorial dominance. As mammals we inherited many of our most primal instincts, and social signals, from the reptilian brains of miniature dragons; ones that look and act just like modern day lizards.
A. Common lizard; B. Tyrannosaurus rex; C. Iguana
Submissive displays, on the other hand, usually make the animal look smaller and weaker. They involve bowing, cowering, stooping, shaking, breathing shallowly, and exerting efforts to minimize the appearance of physical assets. Some animals have bizarre, ritualistic visual signals, such as some lizards that will raise a front arm and wave it through the air slowly in a circular motion to show submission. Like a loyal subject genuflecting in the presence of royalty, chimpanzees with poor fighting records cower immediately during confrontation. They shrink down, whimper, vomit, their legs shake, and their posture collapses. The chakra-like modules of inferior chimps are steeped in trauma and they have no idea how to rehabilitate themselves.
Figure 2: Common Primate Hierarchical Displays:
Chronic Submission Turns into Social Defeat
In infancy, animals have nearly equal propensity to display dominance and submissive displays, and young mammals often use both interchangeably in bouts of play. As the animal matures, one of the two types of display becomes more frequent and more pronounced. The term social defeat refers to losing a confrontation or dispute with a member of your own species. This happens constantly in the wild. The more frequently you feel defeated, the stronger your submissive side becomes.
Animals that have lost fights have uncanny memory for their losses. In cricket fighting, a popular pastime in China, a cricket loses a match if it is thrown from the ring, runs away from battle, or starts avoiding contact. Studies show that after a single loss a cricket will lose its “fighting spirit” and will only fight again one out of ten times (Laufer, 2011). The insect will avoid contact and flee the next time it is approached without even taking the time to size up its opponent.
Experiments exploring social defeat in mammals often use the “resident-intruder” paradigm in which a subordinate animal is placed near the cage of a more dominant animal and is exposed to threats. Sometimes the intruder is placed inside the resident’s cage. In mice and rats this leads to the intruder being attacked and forced into submission. Because the cage is small and escape is barred, the intruder will lie on its back, emit distress calls, and illustrate freezing behavior intended to appease the dominant animal. After this event the subordinate will act defeated for days, and its physiology and brain chemistry will change dramatically. One of the most dramatic changes is the attenuation of its breath. You may have noticed that after a soul crushing defeat, the most notable change is that it sucks the breath right out of you.
Social defeat is a source of chronic stress in mammals capable of causing significant changes in behavior, and biochemistry (Bjorkqvist, 2001). In mammals, social defeat routinely leads to social avoidance, lethargy, reduced exploratory behavior, anhedonia, decreased sexual behavior, and decreased levels of testosterone in males and females (Huhman, 2006). In humans it has been shown to lead to low self-esteem, feelings of depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, and increased stress hormone levels. Animals that lose repeatedly exhibit chronic subordination. Mammals wear the extent of their social defeat on their sleeve, to advertise their place in the social hierarchy.
There is good evidence that social defeat in humans leads to poor health (Allen & Badcock, 2003). This should be expected because social defeat goes hand in hand with sympathetic upregulation. Social status is a robust predictor of death and disease in humans (Sapolsky, 1996). Several studies have found that socioeconomic status (SES) is inversely related to illness, disease and mortality (Adler et. al., 1994; Kaplan & Keil, 1993). The lower one’s social status, the more likely he or she is to have cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, neoplastic, pulmonary, renal or other diseases. This association between disease and social status is not accounted for by related factors such as age, health behavior, race, sex or access to health care and thus is thought to be a direct effect of stress (e.g. Pincus, 1987). In fact, socially isolated people and those who receive less social nurturance and inclusion have a greater risk of dying from any cause (Seeman, 2000).
Chimps use intimidation, bluffs, isolation tactics, and obtrusive social maneuvers to challenge and undermine others and dethrone the leader. Similarly, human glory seeking, personal vendetta, crime and even large scale political conflicts almost always involve efforts by individuals to improve their rank. Many studies have found strong positive relationships between high rank and reproductive success. Males with high rank have the highest reproductive success because they demonstrate “increased female acquisition.” Females with higher rank also produce more surviving offspring (Huntingford & Turner, 1987). Ego boils down to rank, and rank boils down to replication.
Our level of social defeat and the competitive signals that we send cause us to be preoccupied with matters of status. Male chimps are obsessed with it. They organize most of their life around issues of rank consuming their time, their energy, and their learning and memory. Our innate tendencies to resist social defeat forms the evolutionary basis of human egotism, hubris, and insecurity which are in turn the source for much of our existential suffering.
Our egos reflect our thoughts about our place in the pecking order in which we imagine ourselves. This is why the ego plays such a central and pivotal role in our mental lives. The ego is an evolutionarily instantiated neurological machine designed to help us navigate the primate social hierarchy. It causes us to compulsively compare our attributes to those of others. These comparisons determine how we respond to others using the dominance and subordination displays. It is an infatuation with the displays themselves that fuels the ego.
There is a big difference between acting dominant and trying to dominate others. Acting dominant is good for your health. However, trying to dominate others is just another source of stress. The performance of a single dominance/threat display by a primate elicits a stress response in the performing animal. In fact, sometimes the primate trying to dominate is more socially stressed than the one being dominated (Sapolsky, 2005). This tells me that the optimal strategy for humans is to try to cultivate a personality that is nonsubmissive but that abstains from trying to dominate others.
We want to develop relationships that are egalitarian, where there is no vying for dominance. Don’t bother subjecting yourself to the stress of status displays. Rise above them. To do this you must respond to other people’s dominant and submissive displays without using those of your own. This means that if they play dominant, you don’t play dominant or submissive; and that if they play submissive, you don’t play submissive or dominant. Doing so involves subduing 4 central mammalian instincts.
Dominant Animals are the Least Aggressive
What happens to an animal that actually reaches the top? Does an ape that becomes an alpha individual in their group become more aggressive or less aggressive? What is your guess? It is my experience that most people tacitly assume that the dominant ape will become more aggressive. In fact, once an ape or monkey has been accepted as an alpha, its authority established to the point where it is no longer challenged, its aggressive and violent tendencies actually fall dramatically. Usually when a monkey or ape has proven itself the undisputed leader, it no longer has to give subordination or threat displays. All of the sudden they are the most assertive, but the least aggressive. This is true of both males and females. Thus the person who acts aggressive in an attempt to appear dominant has it backwards.
“The male chimpanzee behaves as if he is quite driven to reach the top of the community heap. However, once he has been accepted as alpha (in other words, once his authority is established to the point where it is no longer challenged), his tendency for violence falls dramatically. Personality differences and differences in the number, skills, and effectiveness of his challengers produce variation in how completely he relaxes. However, once males have reached the top, they can become benign leaders as easily as they earlier became irritated challengers. What most male chimpanzees strive for is being on top, the one position where they will never have to grovel. The difficulty of getting there induces aggression” (Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males).
If these documented scientific observations show us anything it is that acting aggressive is a sign of weakness and self-perceived inferiority. I believe that the main reason why dominant primates are not aggressive is because they are no longer haunted by their own threat and subordination signals. What keeps humans controlled by our egos and obsessed with issues of pride? Just like apes, it may be the signs and symptoms of our social stress induced by the status hierarchy. We all desperately want to end the threat and subordination signaling because deep down we know it is the cause of our pain. It drives a wedge between us and everyone we know. The problem is we have been conditioned to accept the implicit assumption that the only way we can end the grueling cycle is to rise to the very top of the social hierarchy.
Most of us decide at some point that the only time we could be free of the issues of status, the only time we can be happy, is when we are at the top. This is the only time we can breathe easy. We all want to be the strongest, the best looking, the smartest, and the most successful. But given society’s unrealistic criteria for these, and in a world of billions, this is something that no one can ever attain. It is no wonder humans cannot find happiness. We shouldn’t have to be the leader of the free world to stop feeling compelled by status concerns. In fact, we can stop playing the hierarchy game whenever we want. But even if we stop mentally, our body will continue to carry symptoms of social defeat like the lump in the throat, the shortness of breath, the rock in the pit of the stomach and the tension in the face. These are spiritual burdens that will inevitably drag us back into the hierarchical fray. This book will show you how to mend these symptoms. But where do we start? In my opinion, we should start with “breathing easy.”
In most mammals, shallow breathing accompanies submission, and aggression while deep breathing accompanies dominance and assertion. The submissive chimp always greets the more dominant chimp first, and does so with a sequence of short, pant-grunts. These are shallow pants, which are indicative of a form of handicapped breathing. Chimps also whimper when acting submissively. It is a high-pitched sound accompanied by shallow breath. Dominant chimps, on the other hand, will hoot loudly while inhaling and exhaling deeply and rhythmically in what is called a ventilating display. This may indicate respiratory health and may be a form of boasting. I believe that if you outfitted any primate with instrumentation that recorded the breathing rate and depth of inspiration and expiration, you would find that the extent of diaphragmatic breathing would be an excellent predictor of dominance, number of offspring, quality of life, and a wide variety of other positive traits and outcomes.
Shallow breathing in humans is known by the scientific community to be an indicator of stress, but it has not been viewed in the proper ecological context. Shallow breathing is a submissive and conciliatory display. We breathe shallowly to show people we are listening to them, that we are concerned, or that we are not better than them. There are strong social expectations on us to breathe shallowly. But if you train yourself to be a deep breather, even your most polite breathing won’t be shallow. Whether you are sitting in an office meeting, chatting with a friend, having an argument, or taking an exercise class, there should be only one competition that going on in your head. Out of everyone in the vicinity, you want to take the fewest number of breaths per minute. The only way to accomplish this is to breathe slowly, smoothly and deeply. In my opinion, this liberates you from the status hierarchy, and is the only thing that you should do aggressively. The next chapter will show you how.
Chapter Bullet Points
- Our bodies are “survival machines” for competitive molecular replicators.
- Our DNA is willing to sacrifice our physical and emotional wellbeing for survival.
- We were designed to adapt to stressful environments by upregulating our stress response system.
- Everyone’s stress system has been turned up too high to different extents, and this results in chronic muscular, respiratory and cardiovascular fatigue.
- Signals and postures indicating either submission, or aggression are sources of stress and trauma.
- There are many ways to turn the stress system down and we should start by disregarding the social hierarchy, and abandoning submissive and aggressive displays.
- Dominant mammals are usually the least traumatized and the most composed.
- Dominant mammals are the most assertive, but the least aggressive.