You will likely agree that we are not faced with many absolute
stressors in 2011. Yet, the World Health Organization has predicted that
by 2020 stress-related disorders like heart disease and depression will
be in the top two leading causes of disability in adults. Why?
These days, our body’s stress response system is activated just as
much if not more than when we hunted mammoths. But there is a difference
in what is activating it. Today we face more relative stressors. These
are stressors that only some exposed to them would interpret as being
stressful. As such, they are subjective stressors that cause different
reactions in different people, like a short deadline at work, traffic,
paying taxes, or writing an exam.
Why is it that time pressure makes some people N.U.T.S with stress
while others do their best work? To make a cake we need some basic
ingredients. But, there are endless possibilities in how we combine
them, what brands we use, and what we add for flavor. The same applies
for stress. There is a basic Recipe for Stress that is the same for
For a situation to be stressful and cause the release of stress
hormones we must interpret it as containing one or more of the
following; Novelty, Unpredictability, a Threat to the sense of self or
ego, and decrease our Sense of control or N.U.T.S. What is novel to you
is different from what is novel to John. This is why stress is highly
Our lives today are filled with situations that we interpret as
stressful or relative stressors. Our stress response system does not
know the difference between an absolute and a relative stressor. In
other words, it can’t tell whether we are facing a large wooly mammoth
or a traffic jam; it releases the same stress hormones!
How is it that our highly sophisticated brain cannot tell time and
not know that we are in 2011? Our brain can probably tell time but we
are draining the batteries in the clock far too quickly. This is because
our stress response system was not designed to be activated as often as
it is these days. After all, we did not hunt mammoths every day. A good
sized mammoth would provide food for our tribe for quite some time.
It is entirely appropriate for you brain to release stress hormones
in the face of a charging mammoth; this is an absolute stressor and we
need the energy. Traffic on the other hand is not life threatening, does
not require energy expenditure, nor will it prevent you and your family
from eating over the next month. It is a relative stressor.
For a system that was designed to only be activated on occasion, the
constant demands we place on it due to our interpretations of situations
as stressful are causing undue wear and tear which can lead to
considerable health problems.
So, a mammoth as our logo reminds us of the difference between
absolute stressors and relative stressors and that managing stress is
within reach. Life has evolved to what it is today and as such we will
never be able to eliminate all sources of stress, both absolute and
relative. But we can learn to influence our interpretations in a way
that will ultimately decrease the number of times our stress response
system gets activated, decrease the amount of stress hormones we release
and help us cope with stress.