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Stress and Brain Chemistry: Not Just a Kick in the Head

Stress is a bit like falling in love - its all about chemistry. 21st century life, with its crazy pace and fancy technology transforming everything before our eyes, actually started out like many romances - all sexy and new, heady with that heightened sense of possibility. But an adrenaline rush - whether its from falling in love or failing an exam - must be balanced by more sustainable and stable emotional states or the intensity will burn us out.

Psychological stress produces the same bio-chemical rush of cortisol and adrenaline that primitive man experienced running from a charging lion but with less clear ways of knowing the danger has passed. Now that we have stresses related to economic uncertainty and critical bosses who remind us of our moody old dad who could never be pleased, now that our own habits of mind can bring on the cortisol cocktail whether or not we actually need to gear up for fight or flight, the effort to eliminate internal scripts based on hurtful, discouraging relationships in the past is more essential than ever (also good to remember this in love affairs, by the way).

The most damaging perception is that we are on our own in a hostile world, or that we are better off going it alone than risking another hurt. While there is a risk associated with every human relationship, we need each other, we need to have good times with good people who get us as much as we get them. Connection to social networks are directly related to better overall health. Connections to many different kinds of people adds another protective level, because people who have diverse social networks have greater resiliency to the negative effects of stress, That’s not just the view of a therapist still infatuated with human creative potential - its science.

According to the feature article in the September 2009 issue of Scientific American, social networks strengthen our resilience to stress by expanding the range of choices available to us for coping with difficult life changes. “Participation in group life can be like an inoculation against threats to mental and physical health,” the article states. “This is much cheaper than the pharmaceutical pathway, with far fewer side effects. And as a means of keeping the doctor at bay, it is also likely to prove much more enjoyable.”“

We can ramp up our social skills through direct participation in groups that give us a chance to use our talents, or help others develop theirs. Sharing our strengths with others builds up our own awareness of what we already have going for us and brings in supportive people to help us focus on the positive. This is key to creative problem-solving = a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that positive feelings toward others improves the way people cope in a crisis.[i]

Social experiences that expose us to diverse groups of people are particularly important for 21st century challenges, which will require more complex relationship skills: adaptability, flexibility, and cross-cultural awareness. But these capacities have the side benefit of boosting physical health, because one of the brain chemicals that makes us feel so amazing when we fall in love is dopamine, the chemical associated with a sense of reward which also is released by the creative process, when we have direct involvement in the production of something new. This is amplified when the creative engagement is in collaboration with a group.

In the Network Economy, we have to be ready to ask “how can I help,” “how can we work together?” “what can I contribute that might lead to something innovative?” And in that process we self-medicate. Its all about love, and that’s what we call a kick in the head.





[i] Daubman, K. A. and Nowicki, G. P. “Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52, (1987) 1122-1131.

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