Stress and the Bear


We have a wonderful system for stress and dealing with threat. The bummer is that:

1. It was designed for us millions of years ago, and works optimally if you are a caveman/woman
2. It is good for about 20 minutes, then it starts to wreak havoc. Why? Because if you hadn’t killed whatever it was that was attacking you after about 20 minutes, you probably were not going to win!

The major problem with this system is that  modern man faces stress for many hours, weeks, months, not just 20 minutes. We simply were not designed for this. Let me explain:

So, imagine the scene: You’re a caveman type family. Funnily enough, you live in a cave (and not the Flintstones cartoon variety). A bear comes!

Now this is where it gets interesting – the genders have a different response to the bear as stress floods their bodies to help them.

Men – their job is to fight the bear! They focus on the bear, and ONLY on the bear. Take the caveman out of the cave, put a suit and tie on him, place under stress and watch him completely unable to do anything but think and fight the big company merger. He becomes incapable of making any other decisions, such as “where shall we go Skiing this weekend?” or “can you pick up some bread on the way home please?”.

Women – their job is to get all the children and elderly to the back of the cave. Under stress, woman become incredible multitaskers with broad vision. This can lead to fractured focus, as so much is being dealt with at once. She takes on too much, too quickly and can end up running around like a headless chicken (sound familiar?).

Is it any wonder that a couple under stress are not the most compatible of combinations?
The body has been flooded with all sorts of gnarly hormones and chemicals. Heart rate has increased and blood has rushed to the upper torso, ready to power the arms to give that bear a beating. The blood also turns thicker and stickier, so if those nasty bear claws do get you, you won’t bleed out quite as fast.

After 20 minutes:

  • the body is tired. Continued experiences of stress creates wear and tear on the body, and can reduce the bodies immunity and ability to heal (you get older faster!)
  • All that extra blood in the upper limbs results in headaches and a tight neck and shoulders.
  • The sticky blood starts messing with the blood pressure and the heart (think of all those over worked executives having strokes)
  • You get a really wolly head. Really wolly. In fact some studies have shown that our IQ drops by 20%. This means we cant think clearly at all. Under long term stress, we think in very Black and White terms, and lack the ability to brainstorm.

Result? A person under stress is very tired and they can’t think straight: this person is not great at conversation (unless they are giving instructions) and really rubbish at listening. All they can hear is the bear.

So how do we stand down after 20 minutes of stress?

There are three approaches to dealing with stress:

1. Tackling the stressors (back away from the work and head for a beach)

2. Tackling the signs of strain (try this pill it will really help….woops! You are sound asleep)

3. Tackling the mental processing of the stress (Is that really a bear?)


I am very interested in working with category 3. So much of our day-to-day thinking interprets situations as being as dangerous and deadly as a bear attack – even when it is being stuck in traffic. I work with the understanding that our thoughts trigger physical and emotional reactions, so if we look at our thoughts we can sit back in our little caves and chill, as we know the bear was only ever in our heads.

What do your bears look like?



[hr]Photo credit:

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