circuits responsible for conscious self-control are
highly vulnerable to even mild stress. When they shut
down, primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis
sets in. (Scientific American; subscription
This helps explain the natural "fight or flight"
response we feel when suddenly confronted with danger or
potential danger, but more importantly it illuminates
how we lose the ability to analyze circumstances
rationally when we are "stressed out." Once our rational
analytic abilities are shut down, we are prone to making
a series of ill-informed and rash decisions.
This has the potential to set up a destructive
positive feedback loop: the more stressed out we
become, the lower the quality of our decision-making,
which then generates poor results that then stress us
out even more, further degrading our already-impaired
rational processes. This feedback loop quickly leads to
"losing it" and/or burnout.
In pondering human development over the past 20,000
years of the transition from hunter-gatherer groups to
modern life, it seems self-evident that stress was
likely to be resolved in relatively short order in the
hunter-gatherer lifestyle: everyone was known to
everyone else, conflicts had to be resolved simply
because the group survival depended on it, and most
threats could be fended off with vigilance, weapons or
left behind by a few hours of fast walking.
Contrast the ancient environment that selected for
this stress/conscious self-control feedback with modern
life: in the modern urban life and work environment,
stress is more or less constant and our ability to
resolve stressful situations is limited because we
control very little about the macro social-economic
waters we're navigating.
Though this particular article focuses on
short-term stress, there is growing body of evidence
that chronic stress has a number of subtle and
destructive consequences. In addition to the
common-sense connection between chronic stress and
hypertension, there is evidence that obesity is also
related to stress-caused conditions such as inadequate
sleep and chronic inflammation. This makes sense as the
stress hormones erode the immune system's
Behaviorally, stress breaks down self-control, so it
is no surprise that stress leads to bingeing, addictive
behavior, impulse buying, etc.--all "knock-on" effects
with negative consequences.
Chronic stress permanently degrades our ability to
rationally analyze and plan, and so we act irrationally
or erratically, as we are no longer able to stick to a
conscious plan of coherent action. With the rational
mind and self-control centers permanently suppressed, we
are prone to withdrawal and passivity, "sleepwalking"
though life. This may help explain Americans' remarkable
passivity as their civil liberties are taken away and
their financial insecurity increases.
Many of the features of post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD) are now visible in "everyday Americans,"
and an understanding of how stress erodes rational
thought and self-control helps explain why.
Even before the pandemic, over half of Americans
reported that their stress level was usually high.
(see chart below) We can guess that this already high
percentage is now considerably higher, given that 32
million people are receiving some form of unemployment
and thousands of small businesses have closed.
Medical professionals were already burning out
before the pandemic. (see chart below) What the
status quo must cover up is the reality that the
structure of our winner-take-most socio-economic system
makes it unlivable, even for professionals (or
especially for professionals, in many cases).
We have three basic ways to counter the
destructive consequences of stress:
1) Develop positive physical and mental responses via
discipline, habit and practice (for example, regular
exercise, gardening, etc.).
2) Turn off the mainstream media and social media
(i.e. eliminate deranging, destructive distractions).
3) Stay focused on our plans. The simpler and more
positive the plan, the more likely it is we can stay
focused on it in stressful circumstances.
I laid out a context for my own planning in May.