We all have a Black Panther armor suit!
Do you know Black Panther, the African superhero? Then you know he has a special suit. An armor that, when being hit, mobilises energy to hit back. (Watch this clip from the movie) In this little blog, I’m going to argue that we all have a very similar system. Of course, it is only a metaphor, but the resemblance is rather striking…
Music for today: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
Humans and their ancestors have lived a life that has its fair share of stressors (1). It would only be logical that evolution has provided us with a system that is able to cope with challenges. Surely it did: it is our stress system!
When you are stressed, a whole lot of things happen. Chemicals are released (think adrenaline and cortisol), your heart starts pumping faster and harder and your blood pressure rises, your pupils dilate, your ventilation increases, your liver produces glucose and your muscles receive more blood. This all has one purpose: action! Your stress system mobilises all this energy so you can take on the stressor at hand.
(Please note that these changes can vary in intensity. Not every stress reaction is a full blown fight-or-flight-response!)
So if you’re hit with a stressor, your systems mobilise energy to confront that stressor. That’s exactly what the armor of Black Panther does.
But there’s a problem. For many people and in many situations, the reactions of our stress system are stressful in their own way. This flush of energy rushes through the body and overwhelms the person experiencing the stress. They get jittery, anxious, scared, stunned, …
Although it makes sense to feel freaked out, the trick is to recognise this ‘energy’ and to use it to handle stress, just like Black Panther!
This is probably easier said than done, but according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author of the book ‘How Emotions Are Made’ (tip: read it!), it really is possible:
“If you understand that “fear” is a cultural concept, a way of overlaying meaning on to high arousal and high unpleasantness, then it’s possible to experience it differently. “You know, when you have high arousal before a test, and your brain makes sense of it as test anxiety, that’s a really different feeling than when your brain makes sense of it as energised determination,” she says. “So my daughter, for example, was testing for her black belt in karate. Her sensei was a 10th degree black belt, so this guy is like a big, powerful, scary guy. She’s having really high arousal, but he doesn’t say to her, ‘Calm down’; he says, ‘Get your butterflies flying in formation.’” That changed her experience. Her brain could have made anxiety, but it didn’t, it made determination.”
“Energised determination”, what a great way to put it. And what a great metaphor from the karate sensei: “get your butterflies flying in formation.”
Most people probably do this already, at least in some situations. Sometimes I feel stressed and experience the concurrent emotions as negative and undesirable. But at other times, I recognise these jittery feelings as normal, even positive excitement. I remember, from high school, being really nervous and scared when I needed to give a presentation for my class. Now I really enjoy teaching, and if there’s a bit of stress involved, I acknowledge it as useful and constructive, I feel excited for what’s coming!
And there’s more. Our stress systems have a feature that, to my knowledge, is not present in the Black Panther suit: it improves over time when it is challenged! Your capacity to handle challenges is like your capacity to lift weights: gradual and dosed stresses make it stronger. Your suit is anti-fragile (second tip: read Antifragile by N.N.Taleb). Be careful though, because this antifragility process also needs rest and recovery! Stress and rest, danger and safety, chaos and order, yin and yang… two sides of the same coin.
So the stress system is designed for action, to get you towards an evolutionary adaptive goal. There’s another big problem, if the stress reaction is not followed by action, things can go haywire. This freed energy needs to have some kind if outlet, or it goes out of control. Movement probably is the best form of action to use this energy. Lots of stress and no movement are a recipe for disaster, even more so if you add a bit of sleep deprivation!
Stress is a killer, they say. But our stress system is a life saver. We are the descendants of many generations of ancestors that handled challenges adequately, through the actions of our stress system. It is invaluable for a meaningful life.
But stress definitely can kill, if it is chronic! Zebra’s don’t get ulcers, as Robert Sapolsky famously states (third tip: read ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), but zebras don’t have the chronic stressors we have. Also, our striped friends have control over their actions, unlike many of us… (2)
So, the stress-response is designed to make us move. What these feelings do not tell us, is in what direction to move! Not all this energy is made to confront the stressor. Sometimes it is energy that's being freed to escape: to silently sneak away or to run for your life! Some stressors are too big to tackle and should be avoided.
This brings us back to the famous prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom comes from knowledge and experience. You need to learn with the mind and with the body!
This also means that this little blog is worthless, unless you incorporate its lesson through your actions. Note that incorporates literally mean 'to put into the body'. You need to 'embody' it… “Knowledge is only a rumour until it is in the muscle.”, is still my favourite proverb from Papua New Guinea.
Let’s go back to my fear of speaking in front of the class. I remember that my rational brain understood the stupidity of being scared to speak in front of my friends, but somehow, the rest of me, acted extremely nervous. I still see my hands trembling while holding my little ‘cheat sheet’, transmitting the tremor to the paper and thus making it visible to everyone. But I also remember that it all changed after I started teaching 12 year old boys to play drums for the marching band at school. Somehow, unknown to me at that time, I gradually started to recognise that jittery feeling as a positive force, as an energised determination, as excitement for what was coming. I learned how to put my butterflies into formation.
What I wanted to communicate with this blog is:
We all have the capacity to handle stress. Even better, we get energised by stress, energy that should be used for action. And, on top of that, our stress system evolves: when adequately challenged, it gets better and better.
There are a few drawbacks. First, this extra energy needs to be used, preferably for action, otherwise it will be detrimental for your wellbeing. Second, our capacity for improvement is dependent on frequent challenges: use it or lose it! And finally, our armor is not well suited to handle chronic loads…
As a movement chauvinist, it is very interesting that movement is one of the best ways to both handle the energy freed by stressors, and to increase the adaptive capacity of our stress systems. By the way, play is a great way to learn how to handle stress. Play can be frivolous, but make no mistake, play often involves challenge and stresses the persons playing.
Thanks for reading.
(1) Some terminology: we use ‘stress’ for different things, with different meaning. I tried to use ‘stressor’ as the external cause that stresses you, and the ‘stress reaction’ or ‘stress response’ for what your stress system does with the stressor. Hopefully this makes sense…
(2) This blog is intended to improve the bad reputation that stress has, not to highlight the negative aspects of some kinds of stress have on our health. Again, read Sapolsky’s very enjoyable book (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers) for that.