8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe


Humanity has never been so well provided for. We've pulled an Indian rope trick with the food chain, climbing so far above it that people can now decide they don't feel like eating certain kinds of organism, which is the evolutionary equivalent of doing a handstand on the top of the food pyramid.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"How's spending your entire life on a single leaf working out, koalassholes?"

But our status as evolutionary emeritus has left our brains looking for something else to worry about. And they're obliged by major news networks, which like to keep our stress levels somewhere between a nine-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory and a nine-tailed peacock trying to escape that cat through a narrow gap in the factory's wall.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"Maybe I could spin my tail like a helicopter."

The result? Perfectly healthy, well-fed, indoor, and entirely unmaimed monkeys screeching about how stressed they are. Stress is a terrible high-pitched scream that can only be heard in the stomach, a horrible tightness in the chest where it feels like your heart is holding its breath and you realize "Holy shit, my resting state is now simulating heart attacks." Stress is designed for saber-toothed tigers and routinely deployed against spreadsheets, and, just like we can do with anything, humans can make it way better and worse ...

The Stress Harvest

For a bountiful stress harvest, take a task that isn't due for a long time. Plant it deep in your To-Do lists, fertilize it with the bullshit of assumptions of its easiness, water it by pissing away all your time, and then reap the double harvest of stressing about getting it done at the last minute while screaming at yourself for letting this happen.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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It's an agriculture of panic. Worse, the undone job undercuts your enjoyment of everything you tried to enjoy instead of getting it over with in the first place. Wrapping up a task feels good, amplifying all our endorphins when we relax. Delaying something we can easily complete leaves a little knot of nagging neurons, and instead of working away on the job in the background, all they're doing is building up the biggest "I TOLD YOU SO!" possible when you find yourself scrambling at the last minute.

The deep dark circuits of your apey brain don't understand tax filings or carburetor maintenance, but that only makes their worry about those things all the worse. A survival animal's only level of worry is "If I don't do what I'm meant to, I will die." If an ape didn't do its daily work, it got starved, frozen, and eaten, and it's bringing that level of stress to incomplete RJ-17 forms.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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You could let the ape deal with them directly, because smearing them with shit and throwing them at your boss will ensure you don't have to fill out any more.

The Squeezed Asshole

When we stress, our brain shifts to emergency mode and reprioritizes. For many, the first thing to go is any pretense of empathy. It's amazing how many people will put "getting to the counter five seconds faster" above "every other person in the world." Or "realizing I'm unarmed and outnumbered," which really should be your first instinct when you start acting like an asshole in an anonymous crowd, every one of whom could provide alibis for the others while Orient Express-ing your ass into chunks.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"Spend one more minute at the head of the queue shouting about expired vouchers. We'll be the United Colors of Beatdown."

Back when our brains were being built, an asshole mode made sense, because any "crisis situation" was usually bounding toward you with a mouth full of knives and a hungry expression. Social niceties could be sacrificed. As could the slowest person you were being nice to.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"We'll need you to collate the copies, make the coffee, and wear 5 pounds of veal to go meet the clients from Panthera leo."

The same stress situation gave rise to the idea of "shitting yourself," as your body dumped all unnecessary weight in an effort to outrun apex predators (and presumably to make you less appetizing to eat). But we don't shit ourselves anymore, and shitting over other people doesn't help either. Important but voluntary stresses like exams and airplane departure times simply don't justify prickery. No matter how screwed the situation, every desk worker preserves some small ability to make things better or worse for you. Screaming is a shortcut to the latter.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"I'm sorry, sir, it seems your appointment was scheduled for the next bank holiday after the heat death of the universe."

Physical Self-Destruct

We've mentioned how stress makes us ignore anything non-essential, the insane modern definition of "non-essential" meaning "the exact opposite of that; everything humans need to stay alive and in fact evolved specifically to do." The first two tasks to go are eating well and cleaning at all. But better food and improving our environment were the primary points of sapiening. Food devolves into grabbing gobs of grease on the go. Any society where someone can care more about the font for a PowerPoint than the material they'll use to rebuild their own colon is insane.

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"I'm projecting that output will increase 57 percent, but that I won't enjoy it."

Maintaining our environment -- you know, the one and only ability elevating us above every other life form on the planet, the one we're so much better at that the word "predator" doesn't even apply to us anymore -- is utterly ignored.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"Yeah, I'm thinking I'll just start it all again from scratch. Life, I mean. From unicellular. Right here."

The result is entropy acceleration. You decay as your body tries to rebuild itself out of garbage, which would at least camouflage it in your increasingly stinking filth chamber. Add the way stress depresses your immune system, and you've got a body breaking down in a disease cultivation lab. The flesh can't defend itself against sickness, and the rapidly depressing brain no longer even wants to. Which segues nicely into ...

Wishing You Were Sick

Some people still wish they were sick instead of going to work, because some people never actually grew up; they just became large enough to go to jobs instead of school.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"I am exactly sick enough to miss office work but not miss my guild, despite those being functionally identical."

Wishing you were sick is the brain doing the exact opposite of what it was built for. Again. The worst part is the awful failure of attitude indicated by wishing you were truly sick instead of screaming "SCREW IT" and simulating the symptoms with a bottle of scotch. Either live properly or screw up properly. When someone's self-belief is so low that they're seeking permission from virus particles to do what they want, they're overestimating how much the species would miss them if they didn't turn up.

Transmitting It

Another ancient behavior is transmitting danger signals to the rest of the pack. That made sense when every single problem was the evolutionary equivalent of the guy with the knife hand in Enter the Dragon. But telling everyone you meet how worried you are about your sports psychology midterm is not adding to their survival chances. In fact, endless wittering about every stray thought that worries your brain is actively damaging their survival instinct by making them wish they were dead.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"No, that's fascinating. I'm just gonna bang nails through my legs for a bit, but please, keep talking."

When someone spends half an hour complaining to you about a problem instead of fixing it, he's demonstrating that he doesn't think his life is very important, and flat-out telling you that he thinks yours is even less important.

Trillian Choices

The Trillian choice is when you make a binary decision and stress about it no matter which you choose. It's named for Trillian of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who is split in two in Mostly Harmless, one for each option of a binary decision earlier in her life, and both regret it. Meaning it wasn't the decision that destroyed her, but part of her own personality that was just waiting for the chance.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"But if you wear 3D glasses, we look like one person again."

Luckily there's a simple procedure to defuse this self-winding psychological self-destruct. When you find yourself second guessing a decision after you've made it, check your garage for a DeLorean. Get in and activate the flux capacitor. If you can't do either of those things, stop thinking about the past and get on with fixing your future decisions.

Pre-Emptively Giving Up

The first urge when you have too much to do is to remove commitments and activities until there's nothing left to worry about. But you should avoid life strategies whose ideal state is "coma."

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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Apart from/especially tequila, obviously.

The lesser version of this avoidance strategy is firing off fast requests for extra information, or external confirmation, or anything else that lets us generate an excuse instead of the result. Because it's "somebody else's turn" to get things done.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"Also I have a note from my mom asking that I be excused from meetings today."


Our ancient mammal response to stress is skittering into the bole of a tree and trying to calm our miniature hearts down to only a thousand beats per minute. We're bigger, and we've made all the forests smaller, but our electric jungle has far more hiding places. Twitter and Facebook take hiding in plain sight to global extremes. You can be sitting at a desk covered with work and not see one speck of it for years. Facebook alone can keep whole herds of offices peacefully grazing on each others' emissions while their worries crouch by the "sign out" button, waiting to spring the second they disconnect.

8 Ways We're Hardwired to Turn Minor Stress into Catastrophe
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"OMG, the office is on fire! Totes gonna write an email complaining about all this smoke. Later."

Of course, we can't take advice from small furry ancestors because evolutionary psychology is bullshit. Anyone trying to explain people in terms of simpler, stupider, earlier non-people is trying to convince themselves they can win by reducing everyone else on the planet to a lower difficulty level. It's mostly used by wannabe alpha assholes who don't realize that they're just pissing off the women they meet instead of pissing on them like their cave-dwelling ancestors. I'm using animalogies here to reveal how ridiculous the behavior is, not to recommend it.

None of which stops us from using Netflix as another escape hatch. TV has always been a window into another world, but now it's an outright door. Of the TARDIS. You can find a new favorite show and spend literal days there while your real world decays and your machines go "Crash, we didn't need a whole Matrix, new seasons of Doctor Who were more than enough."

The result? The fun advice? The traditional searing insight at the end of the article? You already know it -- close this article and finish whatever you were meant to be doing. Then come back when you're finished and read 20 more.

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