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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.

“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.

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 …

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.

“YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE, PAST ME! YOU’RE AN IDIOT FOR TRYING TO YELL THROUGH TIME, PRESENT ME! AND I’M GOING TO SCREW YOU SO HARD TOO, FUTURE ME!”

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.

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.

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.


Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty

“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.

“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.

“I’m sorry, sir, it seems your appointment was scheduled for the next bank holiday after the heat death of the universe.”

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