Chapter 2: Persistent Adaptations to Chronic Stress
Our cellular bodies were not designed to live peacefully. 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 during the lifetime of 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 we 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 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. For example, when you exercise consistently, genes that encode the proteins needed for muscle tissue become over-expressed, resulting in muscle growth. That’s a clear case of phenotypic plasticity: your body responds to exercise by building new muscle to make the lifting easier. The same thing happens on a faster scale when your eyes adapt to darkness. Cells in the retina use the rhodopsin gene to build the rhodopsin protein necessary to see better in low light. 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. Every instance of long-term learning in the brain (neuroplasticity) involves physical changes to the nervous system that necessitate protein expression. The examples are endless.
Not all changes in gene expression are good for us. Constant 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. 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, 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. Over time this affects the health of the organism.
These changes are useful, for instance, if trying to escape from a predator. But in the face of chronic stress, they can produce drastic and potentially harmful bodily changes, especially if they are triggered early in development. This is easy to see using non-human examples like certain species of horned beetle, where phenotypic plasticity is responsible for sharply varying body types based on the availability of food. Under conditions of nutritional scarcity, developing males become smaller and weaker, and never develop their characteristic horns. Their metabolism is reduced, and they utilize “sneaky” reproductive tactics rather than the direct combat typical of their better-fed peers. This morph is adaptive—it has better reproductive success—but only in environments where food is scarce and larger beetles simply cannot feed themselves (DeWitt & Scheiner, 2004). Outside those environments, a hornless horn beetle has no real chance to compete.
A. A horned beetle and smaller hornless beetle; B. Water fleas without and with protective armoring
The same pattern holds true among mammals, although the effects can be a little less obvious. Decades of experiments have found that the offspring of nervous mothers are themselves biologically programmed to be more nervous. Nervousness is a potentially adaptive trait, as it helps animals remain on high alert at all times. Exposing mothers to adversity before, during or after pregnancy makes them consistently nervous, and they pass that nervousness on, permanently upregulating their babies’ stress-response systems. More specifically, prenatal stress increases activity in the adrenal system, which causes higher concentrations of stress hormones in mammals from rats (Lin et al., 1998) to monkeys (Schneider et al., 1999). That’s what makes the animals nervous. Mammals with more active adrenal systems are more susceptible to stress, responding to mildly threatening events in exaggerated and inappropriate ways.
These responses often last for the animals’ entire lifetimes. They are a specific type of phenotypic plasticity called “predictive, adaptive responses.” The idea is that if a mother’s environment is hostile, then her offspring will face that same environment, and ought to be prepared for it. For the same reason, rat pups born to calm mothers tend to be calm themselves, and 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 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. The Program Peace method aims to reverse the negative changes, and create positive ones.
You can visually recognize the ravages of stress in people that are extremely anxious, 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 at any given time one is dominant over the other. This creates 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. This keeps a person 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. It is important to realize that the sympathetic nervous system itself is not our enemy; the problem comes only from the long-term, persistent sympathetic over-activation.
As you might expect, inferior and submissive mammals usually have greater 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 next to him, 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 his 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 shared its habitat 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 similar in structure to our own. Mammals and insects both inherit their autonomic nervous systems from a common ancestor that lived around 590 million years ago, near the end of the Precambrian supereon (Miller 1997).
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 teach ourselves how to bring it under control, because it is a great servant, but a terrible master.
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. The disproportionate stress levels found in a person diagnosed with an anxiety disorder might be appropriate if that person was forced to fight for their lives on a minute to minute basis. But none of us do this in modern times. Our sympathetic system is set high, but most of us 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 extraordinarily difficult. This is because our bodies are already poised for negativity.
Stress and the Startle Reflex
The startle reflex is a panic response to something alarming. Startle is initiated by the brainstem and lasts for a fraction of a second (between 20 to 500 milliseconds). It can be elicited by unpleasant thoughts of dangers or deadlines, or by threatening stimuli such as loud sounds or fast-moving objects. When it happens our heart rate increases. The next heart beat comes early, which is a jarring experience. This 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. This has the effect of making the breath shallower. The body’s muscles also tense up during startle, jerking frail spinal segments into new positions. Repeated startle responses will leave your spine tense, and sustained fearfulness over the course of multiple weeks sensitizes the startle pathway in our brains, which explains why anxious people are much more prone to startling.
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 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 that you have startled, 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, and the arms and legs flail out with elbows and knees bent. Among adults, each individual has their own startle posture that has been formed over their lifetimes. Many people flinch, cower, wince, slump over, flail, duck, backpedal, drop things, or buckle at the knees. People with submissive startle postures tend to be submissive people.
The possibility of modifying the startle reflex has not been acknowledged by mainstream science but is clearly feasible. In high-level military, police, and martial arts training, combatants are drilled to assume specific fighting stances when startled. Buddhist monks have demonstrated significant inhibition of startle (Levenson et al., 2012). Some can inhibit almost all evidence of flinching. With introspection and patience we can learn to inhibit our startle magnitude and reduce our emotional reaction to it. Through repetition we can also reshape the automatic movement pattern that is recruited.
With introspection and patience, we can all learn to inhibit the intensity of our startle response, and to reduce our emotional reactions to being alarmed. By doing so, we can slowly reshape the degree to which the sympathetic nervous system is activated by surprising or unpleasant stimuli, allowing us to remain calm more consistently and decrease sympathetic upregulation.
To begin experimenting on your own, start with Stress Adaptation Activity One.
Reducing and reshaping your startle response is an example of how you can begin to make progress in replacing sympathetic upregulation with a healthy autonomic setting. The discussion of optimal postures throughout this book will help you determine what you want your startle posture to consist of.
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 continue to make this same pitiful wager even though it is completely unnecessary in today’s environment. The ante is high. 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 strengths and vulnerabilities. Some of these modules correspond to functional structures, such as the swallowing apparatus, the muscles of urinary control, or the intestinal sphincters. Some modules may correspond to plexuses, or clusters of nerves, such as the pharyngeal plexus, the cardiac plexus, or the solar plexus.
These anatomical modules overlap with the ancient Hindu yogic structures called chakras. Chakras are thought to channel energy, and correlate with both physical ailments and emotional strengths. Chakra-based practices are characterized as pseudoscientific today because this ancient science made many predictions that turned out not to be true. However, the primary concept of the chakra has validity. In fact, modern medicine generally acknowledges that the archaic descriptions of chakras bear a remarkable resemblance to modern anatomical descriptions of nerve clusters.
For example, everyone holds tension in the muscles that control their vocal tract. This traumatizes their voice boxes, and that trauma manifests as a painful lump in the throat which worsens as stress increases. It diminishes vocal range and makes the voice weak and hoarse. We can retrain our vocal apparatus using a series of exercises designed to relax the muscles, and restore a broader vocal range, effectively healing this chakra-like module. This is the subject of Chapter 7.
A. Spinal nerve plexuses; B. Yogi with chakras represented by circles; C. Internal organs
The chakras are the components of our posture that I was discussing in the last chapter, and will continue to discuss throughout this book. The extent to which they have been impacted by stress and trauma determines the extent of our submissiveness displays, and our aptitude for composure. These modules have literally been disfigured by phenotypic plasticity. In other words, chronic stress disfigures each module through phenotypic plasticity, and that disfigurement makes those afflicted by it more susceptible to sensations like being “choked up,” “the jitters,” a “bleeding heart,” “butterflies in the stomach,” “love sickness,” the sensation of a heavy weight on the chest, and shortness of breath. Chakra discomfort is the main cause of anger, aggression, shyness, introversion, and the background hum of persistent anxiety.
Note that it can be hard to detect these patterns in our own behavior. Most of the time, we don’t notice our compromised displays, our physiological dysfunction, or even the pain they cause. Neither shy people nor angry ones understand that their behavior are dictated by the discomfort that comes from unbalanced chakras. Instead, and very unfortunately, they often attribute their experiences and responses to aspects of their environment. This lack of awareness allows their pain to control their behavior all the more effectively.
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. 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. The Program Peace exercise 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.
That makes bodily awareness central to any effort to undo the effects of chronic stress. Each module has its own branches and networks in the nervous system, and each sends and receives messages to both conscious and unconscious areas of the brain. They constantly sent and receive updates from the central nervous system, and each update is an opportunity to consciously notice what that module is doing. If we neglect to attend to the muscles in a given module, our brains develop a blind spot, or “scotoma,” for their activity, making it much harder to self-regulate that part of your behavior. The Program Peace exercises will help you develop awareness of each of the chakra-like modules, gradually extending your self-control to encompass all of your stress-linked behavior. We will focus on sensing where muscles are, whether you are straining them, and how much. The program will also help you learn to hold each muscle group properly while breathing diaphragmatically, so that you can combine multiple postural adjustments into a healthy, sustainable set of everyday behaviors.
Part of what makes Program Peace effective is that it doesn’t ask you to simply stop performing submissive displays. Often, when an individual attempts to withhold submissive displays, signs of submission “leak out” inadvertently despite their best efforts. Psychologists call this phenomenon tension leakage, and it occurs when one unintentionally emits signals that betray nervousness or lack of poise. Examples of tension leakage include a cracking voice, swallowing at inopportune times, body sway, increased blinking, trembling, fidgeting, stammering, and startling.
People who show such leakage early in a confrontation are often thought of as “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, but find themselves constantly cleaning up the spillage. Alternatively, some people try to speak loud enough to simply drown out the sound of the steam whistling out, which manifests as anger and aggression. The activities in this book take another route. They don’t try to cover up the spills, or hide them. Instead, they turn down the heat on 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 slug Aplysia californica is a large shell-less sea snail. Aplysia 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 the bulk of its body. The response is so simple and reliable that it has been used by neuroscientists to study the cellular basis of protective reflexes. In 2000 neuroscientist Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the area. Aplysia was used in these experiments because it has very large neurons that are easy to study and because its entire nervous system has only about 20 thousand neurons (Dudai, 1989). Contrast this with the one million neurons in a cockroach or honey bee, and the 100 billion neurons in the human brain. This simplicity, however, is no barrier to effective function. The slugs are more than capable of learning carefully about when and how much to retract their gills, and, thanks to Kandel’s work, we have a clear understanding of the neural mechanisms involved.
Aplysia’s gill retraction reflex exhibits a phenomenon called sensitization whereby the reflex can be strengthened by adding a painful stimulus. If experimenters shock the animal with a small amount of electricity, they cause it to startle. Pairing the shock with a touch to its gill can make its natural defensive response much more powerful. Animals trained this way are constantly “on guard,” withdrawing their gills more forcefully and for up to four times as long when touched. This change occurs because the slugs on high alert have generalized the negative experience of the shock to other stimuli, so that even a benign, light touch elicits a powerful withdrawal.
A. Sea slug Aplysia Californica; B. Aplysia with its gill fully relaxed; C. Aplysia with its gill fully retracted.
In essence, the muscles and nerves involved in retracting the gill constitute a chakra-like module. And this module can be dysregulated: Aplysia can be trained to hold extreme tension in the muscles surrounding its gills, and to overreact to neutral stimuli. This very similar to how humans come to hold tension in muscles all over their bodies, and to overreact to unthreatening environments. Aplysia’s gill retraction reflex is analogous to the reflexes responsible for a wide range of submissive displays, from our squinting eyes, to our hoarse voices, our suppressed sexuality, and our tense diaphragms. The only real difference is that the sea slugs are traumatized by actual painful stimuli, whereas most of our trauma comes from the way we interpret social competition.
Our chakra-like modules have innate defensive reflexes built into them by evolution. These reflexes are adaptive, when they occur under the right conditions. But as with Aplysia’s gill-retraction, the muscles in each module become sensitized to trauma, generalizing traumatic experiences to everyday life and generating self-harming behaviors.
The good news here is that Aplysia can very easily be desensitized, and so can we. When the slug is touched lightly and repeatedly without being shocked, there is a progressive decrease in how far it retracts its gill. Gradually, it re-learns that there is no risk associated with light touching, and it becomes able to relax. 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. Rather than researchers prodding us with electrodes, we have social contacts prodding us with provocation. This book will teach you how to desensitize your chakra-like modules to their competitive attacks.
The rest of this chapter goes into depth on the social nature of human stressors, and how they are linked to our evolutionary history. It ties together the previous parts of this chapter and the material covered in Chapter 1, and prepares you to dive into the practical side of Program Peace starting in Chapter 3.
Stress and Competition in the Dominance Hierarchy
Animals that live in social communities must actively compete in the same space for resources. When food, mates, or territory are disputed, dominant individuals will prevail over subordinate ones. Since the discovery of the pecking order among hens by Schjelderup-Ebbe in 1922, the status hierarchy has been understood as one of the major forms of social organization in vertebrates. A tiered social system actually helps the group become stable and viable over the long-term. On average, it is beneficial for each member, even for those at the lowest ranks. This is because it minimizes violent competition over resources by defining the relationships among members. In fact, dominance hierarchies improve reproductive fitness for all of the animals involved just by discouraging physical fighting, thereby saving time and energy and reducing the risk of injury.
Unfortunately for us, a stable hierarchy 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 nervous system and create continuous strain on the muscles and other chakra-like 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 become major contributors to our psychological misery.
Chronic Submission Turns into Social Defeat
In infancy, most animals have nearly equal propensity to display dominant and submissive displays, and young mammals often use both interchangeably in bouts of play. As the animal matures, however, one of the two types of display becomes more frequent and more pronounced, and this shift is driven by their experiences 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. This is anticipatory and preemptive. Animals that lose repeatedly exhibit chronic subordination, wearing the extent of their social defeat on their sleeves in order to advertise their place in the social hierarchy.
Most animals that have lost fights have uncanny memory for their losses. Cricket fighting is a popular pastime in China, and provides a perfect example of social defeat. A cricket loses a match if it is thrown from the ring, runs away from battle, or starts avoiding contact. Studies have found that after just one loss a cricket will “lose its fighting spirit,” and will only fight again one time out of ten (Laufer, 2011). Rather than engaging in actual combat, the insect will simply flee the next time it is approached without even taking the time to size up its opponent.
Other examples are just as dramatic. In experiments with mammals, the “resident-intruder” paradigm is often used, which involves placing a subordinate animal near the cage of a more dominant animal which will threaten it. This results in the subordinate acting defeated for multiple days. Alternatively, a submissive intruder can be placed inside the dominant animal’s cage, which leads to the intruder being attacked and forced into submission. Because the cage is small and escape is impossible, the intruder will lie on its back, emitting distress calls and freezing behavior to appease the attacker. In both experimental protocols, the physiology and brain chemistry of the submitting animal is changed significantly.
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 is linked to low self-esteem, feelings of depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, and increased levels of stress-related hormones.
In addition, there is good evidence that social defeat in humans leads to poor health (Allen & Badcock, 2003), and goes hand-in-hand with sympathetic upregulation. Low social status is a robust predictor of death and disease in humans (Sapolsky, 1996), and several large-scale public health studies have found that high socioeconomic status is inversely related to illness, disease, and mortality (Adler et. al., 1994; Kaplan & Keil, 1993). The lower a person’s social status, the more likely they are 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 healthcare, and is thought to be a direct effect of stress (e.g., Pincus, 1987). And the stress appears to be specifically social in origin, as socially isolated people and those who receive less social care and inclusion have a greater risk of dying from any cause (Seeman, 2000).
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.
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. Countless studies have found strong positive relationships between high rank and reproductive success in animals. 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.
Experiences of social defeat can cause humans—like other primates—to become preoccupied with matters of status. Male chimps are obsessed with it, for instance. They organize most of their lives around issues of rank, allowing social struggle to consume their time, energy, and mental lives. Innate tendencies to resist social defeat form the basis of human egotism, hubris, and insecurity. Thus the primate ego is the source of much of our existential suffering.
Our egos reflect the place in the pecking order in which we imagine ourselves. This is why ego plays such a 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, and to use these comparisons to guide our use of dominance and subordination displays. This is also why acting dominant is more important than trying to establish dominant relationships with other people.
There is a big difference between acting dominant and trying to dominate others. Cultivating dominant nonverbal behavior is good for your health—it helps you avoid stress. But trying to dominate others is just another source of conflict, and so also a source of stress. In fact, sometimes the primate trying to dominate is more stressed than the one being dominated (Sapolsky, 2005). The clear implications is that the optimal strategy for humans is to cultivate a non-submissive personality while abstaining from attempts 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 never ending, back-and-forth game of status displays. Rise above them. To do this, you must respond to other people’s dominant and submissive displays toward you without feeling compelled to respond with those of your own. Doing so involves subduing 4 central mammalian instincts. This means that if they play dominant, you don’t respond as dominant or submissive; and that if they play submissive, you don’t respond as submissive or dominant.
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 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.
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? Many people tacitly assume that dominant individuals are more aggressive than subordinate ones. In fact, the opposite is true. When an ape or monkey is accepted as the alpha of its group, its aggressive and violent tendencies fall away. There is no need either for violence or for threat displays (except under unusual circumstances, as when the alpha is challenged by a rival.) These are the most assertive primates, while also being the least aggressive. This is true for both males and females. It is thus perfectly counterproductive for a human to act aggressive in an attempt to appear dominant. What they appear as in, instead, is desperate. Striving for success, rather than having already achieved it. In their book Demonic Males, researchers Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson write that,
“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. And as with apes, so also with humans: we are kept controlled by our egos and obsessed with issues of pride because we want to desperately to stop having to send subordination signals. We know that submissive behavior is the source of much of our physical and emotional pain, so we are always seeking ways to feel confident in leaving submission behind. But we almost never find that confidence. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that we can avoid submission only by rising to the very top of the social hierarchy.
If we were chimpanzees, that might be true. But for humans, social status is neither so simple nor so strict; we are free to stop sending submissive signals any time we choose. Or we are socially free, at any rate. Often we are prevented from doing so not by mechanisms of social punishment, as among the apes, but by our own self-judgment and ingrained bodily habits. Even if we leave behind our mental concern with status, our bodies continue to carry symptoms of social defeat like the lump in our throats, our shortness of breath, the rock in the pit of our stomachs, and the tension in our faces. These are spiritual burdens that will inevitably drag us back into the hierarchical fray. This book will show you how to mend these symptoms and how to lay down the burden of submission, shame, and stressful social comparison.
Where do we start? With the cornerstone of confidence. With “breathing easy.”
In most mammals, shallow breathing accompanies submission and aggression while deep breathing accompanies dominance and assertion. A submissive chimp always greets a more dominant chimp first, using a sequence of short pant-grunts. These are shallow pants, indicative of handicapped breathing. Chimps also whimper when acting submissively, producing 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 is thought to indicate respiratory health. It is essentially a form of boasting: “hear my lung capacity.” It is extremely likely that the extent of deep, diaphragmatic breathing is an accurate predictor of social dominance, number of offspring, quality of life, and a wide variety of other positive traits and outcomes among primates.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention back to humans. Shallow breathing is known by the scientific community to be an indicator of stress, but it has not been discussed in the correct 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, and that we do not think ourselves better than them. We face strong social norms telling us to breathe shallowly.
But it is possible to escape these pressures. We can do so by building strong, consistent habits of diaphragmatic breathing, training ourselves to breathe deeply under every possible circumstance. If you do this, even your most polite breathing won’t be shallow. Whether you are sitting in a 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 have the most relaxed breathing. The only way to accomplish this is to breathe slowly, smoothly and deeply reducing the number of breaths you breathe per minute. In my opinion, relaxed breathing 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” designed to support competitive molecular replicators, our DNA.
- For that reason, our bodies and brains are designed to sacrifice our physical and emotional wellbeing for the sake of survival.
- As one example of this, we are built to adapt to stressful environments by upregulating our sympathetic nervous system’s stress-response activity.
- In the modern world, everyone’s stress system has been over-activated to some extent. This “hyperarousal” results in chronic muscular, respiratory, and cardiovascular fatigue.
- The negative effects of hyperarousal can be addressed piece by piece, by understanding them in terms of a series of modules, perhaps roughly congruent with the ancient Hindu system of chakras.
- Signals and postures indicating either submission or aggression are sources of stress and physiological trauma.
- There are many ways to de-activate the stress system. Most importantly, we all need to start by disregarding the social hierarchy and abandoning both submissive and aggressive displays.
- Dominant mammals are usually the least traumatized and the most composed. They are assertive, but not aggressive.
- Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation of dominant behaviors.