The Evolution of Stress and How We Respond

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The life our ancestors lived thousands of years ago looked much different than the life we live today.  Survival did not only mean avoiding injury or disease, it meant finding food to stay alive. You either ate or got eaten. One thing however, that made this sort of environment survivable was that our bodies were well equipped to handle at least some of the dangers early humans faced. When a large predator leaped from behind a bush, our bodies responded, kick-starting a metabolic cascade that tensed our muscles, quickened our breathing, accelerated our hearts, shut down digestion and prepared our body to fight. When the threat passed, the human body was able to return to its baseline or parasympathetic “rest and digest” state.

Our prehistoric ancestors rarely had time to worry about the future, instead they stressed over immediate concerns. Why wouldn’t they? The real needs of these dangerous encounters trumped the prospective perils of the future. Humans then, were not yet equipped with sophisticated problem-solving or planning skills so they would not have been able to think about the future even if they tried. As humans evolved over time, they got smarter, more complex, and creative. Humans left the nomadic, hunter-gather lifestyle and settled down for the safer embrace of villages and the sedentary lifestyle we are familiar with now.

Common Response to Dangers and Threats

While we don’t have a lot in common today with these earlier humans, that doesn’t mean that we don’t face any dangers or threats, because we do. The difference is the dangers we face are more subtle and we are constantly aware of them. Our prehistoric ancestors did not have bills to pay but you do. They did not have a demanding job, deadlines to meet, marital woes or car repairs either. They did not spend time worrying about health concerns-like that lump you recently discovered or those headaches you’ve been having that could be nothing or could be something terrible. 


The commonality we do share with our prehistoric ancestors is the way our bodies react to perceived threats. Our bodies do not know the difference between a lion jumping out in front of us or a bank threatening us with foreclosure. The biological cascade of hormones that send the body to battle stations with metabolic urgency and tension-has barely changed. Only unlike earlier humans, we almost never get the “all clear”, or get back to our baseline, which is referred to as a “rest and digest” response in our body. The predators that once stalked our ancestors at least took a break. The cycles of stressors modern humans face are relentless and so too is the metabolic mess it makes of us- a permanent state of “fight or flight” that we have come to simply define as “stress”.

Stress and Anxiety

Stress, in a nutshell, is anything a person perceives to be a threat. Threat perception can vary widely from one person to the next, and it determines the intensity and duration of our body’s many stress related reactions. Our bodies react to our perception of a threat and not to the reality of it. Humans are unique to the rest of the species we share on earth as we can predict a threat and prepare ahead of time for the harm that it may inflict. The problem with his ability is that our body starts to mount an immune response, not just in response to a threat but in anticipation of a threat. 

Unfortunately, humans can manifest danger even when there is not any real danger present. This is where anxiety comes into play. Although the term “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably, they are not quite the same. Stress is an external threat and the body’s reaction to that external threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the internal alarm or concern that arises even when an external threat is not physically present.

Acupuncture Decreases Stress

Modern Acupuncture® is a natural stress relief solution and the leading provider of acupuncture in the U.S. The most studied theories show that acupuncture stimulates the body to release naturally produced “feel good” endorphins and stimulate the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” response in our body alleviating the physical symptoms associated with stress.


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