What is stress and how does it affect our health?
The stress that affects our health is not the stress of a car accident or one bad event but the decades long stress of trying to be someone we are not or not having enough control in our lives. For instance, if you work at the lowest rung of a bureaucracy you are 4 times more likely to die of a heart attack that the man at the top. If you learned to get what you wanted by pleasing as a child, using this tactic with others in your adult life may come back and hurt you later.
It's our past that sets up the conditions for much of this stress. Knowing more about our past can help us make conscious life decisions to reduce or even eliminate this stress and so make us much more healthy.
This post will show you how our deep social culture shapes us to today. I think you will see how much conflict we then have in our modern culture that works against nearly all that we need. We will see how our etnic or tribal past influences us. And finally we will see how much our parents affect how each of us sees ourselves and the world.
No pill can help you but you can help yourself - when you know what to work on.
Human Software or Culture
All animals that use social cooperation, culture, as their evolutionary advantage, such as killer whales, wolves, baboons, elephants, have strict social rules about how they group and how members interact.
The social brain evolves pathways that limit the ideal settings for group size for each group. These rules about group size therefore are not subject to whim or fancy. They are a product of millions of years of evolution. This is important because all social animals have to cope with a lot of stress. The stress comes from all the interaction that is tied into begin a social species.
Stress is the great modifier of our health. High stress compromises our immune system, Low stress builds it up. Because we are social beings and because we are conscious, humans are the most at risk for social stress of any other animal. We too have these deep social rules embedded in our neural wiring.
The closer we live according to our social rules the better. At the deepest level here are the universal human rules.
Part 1 - Our Human Culture - Our Common Social Rules
- Human social limits. The human brain has a social limit for trust that is close to 150. We do best in smaller groups of between 8 and 80.
- We do best when the social gap between the leader and the led is very small. There is always a dominance hierarchy in primate organizations. But ideally, the leader has earned their position and lives the same life as the rest.
- We do best when we have a clear say and where we have a role that is appreciated by all. Low status and low control drives stress. Constant social stress drives a weakened immune system and so amplifies the effects of disease.
- We do best when the stakes are high for the group as a whole. We have to do something that matters. Mutual high stakes paradoxically reduce stress because they raise attachment and status.
- We are tribal. We have been tribal for millions of years and 150 years of the nation state or 50 years of globalization will not make a dent in our deep desire to make belonging to a group a key part of our identity. We all behave in all tribes in the same ways. We have a layer of social programming that shapes how we understand other people. We immediately understand a person of the same class and the same ethnic culture. All the nuances are clear. We can easily get confused, or even offended, when we connect with people outside our class and ethnic group. We prefer to be with our own kind. It is good to have tribal stories. It is good to have tribal music. And all tribes do best when they have a tribal enemy. Tribal enemies strengthen the tribe.
Part 2 - Our Ethnic and Class Culture - Our Tribal Social Rules
At the next level of social rules, we have the specific rules of our ethnic tribe. We all come from real tribes. The nation state is very recent. Every nation state is in reality a confederation of tribes.
These tribes have existed for thousands of years. No one is really British. People from Yorkshire are radically different from people from the south of England. People from Northumberland are the same tribe as many who live in Appalachia in the US. Scots who have not been in Scotland for 200 years weep at Burns Night dinners. You can never take the Irish out of the Irish. You can add an endless list of tribal distinctions.
These deep tribal rules govern aspects of social structure. These programs vary according to how we see power distance, collectivism versus individualism, authority, uncertainty, rules and other factors. (More here (Link)
So, if you are a Celt like me, you will tend to have a low tolerance for positional authority and seek leaders who have personal authority. You will have a low respect for the official rules, but have a deeply held sense of personal honour. If you are French, you will have a high tolerance for positional authority. You will need to have clear rules but you will find it easy to break them. No wonder the Brits and the French don’t get on as groups.
We can see the same conflicts when a very individual culture such as the US bumps into a more collective one like Canadians. For the one a universal healthcare system is an anathema and for the other it is the national pride.
These social rules are so deeply embedded that they need no thought and they elicit an immediate response to any stimulus.
Much of the conflict inside nations and between nations today can be explained by these rules. This leads to the question of why tribal conflict is on the rise? I think the answer is stress. Our modern world is too big. Nations are too big. Cities are too big. Most organizatins are too big. Think of a high school with 2,000 kids. No wonder there is bullying!
We seek relief in a tribe. We feel best when in a tribe. Having tribal enemies gives us a role. We see this in sports fans. We see this in cliques at school. We see this is the drive for tribal independence in nation states all over the world. We see it in a fear of immigration.
Wishing it would go away is fanciful. Seeking to understand would be helpful.
Part 3 - Our Family Culture and Personal Story - Our Personal Social Rules
Finally we come to the environment that is most important of all in shaping the cultural trajectory of our lives. This is the first 3 years of our lives. It is in this short period that we develop our Personal Story. This is our personal set of rules for how the world works and how we fit into it. It governs how we respond to events and to other people.
It is our ego. It's that voice in our head that nags us all the time.
Is the world a safe place or not? Do we have confidence or not? Are we loved or not? Do we spend the rest of our lives looking for our father’s approval or our mother’s love? It is here that we develop coping strategies that we tend to use for the rest of our lives. Have an older sibling who is the good girl, then we might become the boy that they all worry about? The opposite of this is the girl who got what she wanted by pleasing her parents and so makes pleasing others her strategy.
In this period the brain is very plastic. What happens is that we set up a pathway from trigger to response. If we repeat this enough, a pattern is literally carved in our neural system and then we respond without thinking to the trigger. We are in effect wired.
This stems from this period because this is the period when we are designed to learn language. An infant can learn any language very quickly then and can learn more than 3 at a time with ease. The brain is designed to carve these pathways. As we get older, we lose a lot of this plasticity. This is why it is hard to learn languages after 6 and why it is hard to change our hardwired behaviours.
Our family’s culture is the determining factor. What the infant needs to be set off on the ideal trajectory is a high touch, high conversation and so high attachment environment.
There appear to be three main types of parental culture. (Source)
“Authoritative” – Parents who establish a warm and nurturing relationship with their children but set firm limits for their behaviour
“Authoritarian” – Parents who are highly controlling, requiring their children to meet an absolute set of standards
“Permissive” – Parents who are overly nurturing and who provide few standards for behaviour and are extremely tolerant of misbehaviour.
The optimal culture is Authoritative.
It is not easy to hold all of this in our minds. So in the next post I am going to do my best to pull it all together in a way that makes it easier to grasp and to see the connections .