How Did Stone Agers Handle Stress?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2006

Nature has designed us to handle stress very effectively. Unfortunately, the kind of stress that we experience today is not what nature had in mind. As I described in an earlier column, the flight or fight response protects us when we attack or are being attacked. Heart, lungs, muscles and brain are at maximum readiness while the gastrointestinal tract and the urinary system go into the pause mode. Changes occur in the skin and the blood clotting mechanism in anticipation of injury. Even pain perception changes dramatically during episodes of stress.

Animals in the wild don't suffer from chronic stress. When we cage animals, on the other hand, we induce behaviors that animal experts know well. Constant pacing, loss of appetite, aggressive behavior and reproductive failure are examples. It's not hard to find examples of the same kind of behavior among people that we have known.

Those distant ancestors that wandered on the grassy savannahs of Africa didn't worry about much. Certainly they had episodic stress when a predator attacked or when they hunted dangerous game. But when the chase ended, so did the stress. And therein lies a key to how we can reduce stress. We can imitate what our Stone Age ancestors did with bursts of physical activity but most of us don't go into the next stage, relaxation. There are physical reasons why we should stretch and slowly cool down after a session in the gym or after a long walk but there are mental benefits, too. By taking about 10 minutes to stretch those warmed-up tendons and ligaments we make them more flexible, but it also gives our body a chance to recover from stress.

Modern stressors such as financial worries, job insecurity or family problems may last for days, weeks or months. We need a short bout of intense physical activity that will act the same way that it did during the Stone Age. Blood flow increases to all organs, especially muscles, opening up dormant blood vessels and removing accumulated waste products. A brief but intense increase in blood flow, especially to the heart, dilates coronary blood vessels and keeps them flexible, and keeps the cells that line those vessels in a healthy state. The hormones that the body generates in response to stress are lifesaving in the short run, but lead to chronic elevation of blood pressure and have other detrimental effects if we don't metabolize them away with exercise. That is, if we don't either flee or fight, stress hormones accumulate. Only regular — that means almost daily — exercise will bring us back to a normal state.

Distance runners and exercise devotees recognize a special exhilaration that comes with their favorite athletic activity. In the course of intense physical activity the body releases endorphins, opioid-like substances that have a calming, mood-enhancing effect. Even during the process of childbirth the mother produces endorphins that pass to the infant, relieving the baby of some of the stress of entering the world.

Endorphins may also help us to relax, even more important now than it was thousands of years ago. Whether deliberate or endorphin-induced, relaxation lowers blood pressure and other stress-related phenomena.

When you feel stressed, try exercise and relaxation techniques, in that order. There are no side effects, and the benefits may be lifesaving.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at