Stress, Social Intelligence, & How Our Brains Are Wired

I’m currently doing everything I can think of to reduce my stress levels. That’s not entirely trivial, because it’s not as simple as just avoiding stressful situations. For example, much of my non-illness-related stress is created, one way or another, from certain social situations. Simply avoiding social situations isn’t the answer, because that leaves me lonely and isolated… which is also a cause of anxiety and stress. We simply aren’t wired for isolation because we evolved in groups, are interdependent, and require interactions with the opposite sex to reproduce. The weight of millions of years of evolution forces us to socialise.

I figure that one way to reduce unavoidable stress is to master potentially stressful situations so that they no longer causes stress. And one way to do that is to learn as much as I can about the situation in question. Plus I’m just generally fascinated by social dynamics and the way that humans interact to get their needs met. Or not. So I’m currently reading Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, by Daniel Goldman, the guy who wrote Emotional Intelligence. And I’m finding both books are fascinating.

Unlike a lot of the New Age stuff on Mind/Body interactions, Goldman’s work is actually based on neuroscience and the way the brain is wired. And here’s where it gets interesting: Most of the information from our senses passes through the thalamus in our brains, before being distributed to the rest of our grey matter which interprets what’s going on around us, thus affecting our conscious thoughts. The thalamus is like a pre-processor, discarding irrelevant information and organising the rest of our sensory input so it’s easier for the rest of the brain to handle.

However, there is also a bypass circuit which sends sensory information directly from the thalamus to the amygdala without pre-processing it. The amygdala is the part of our brain which handles emotions and is capable of triggering our fight-or-flight response. Interestingly, this means that the amygdala may respond to sensory input that the thalamus discards, meaning we will never be consciously aware of it… But we’ll have an emotional response anyway. It’s not just “happening in our subconscious” as Jungian New Agers would say; it’s actually a different neural circuit that isn’t even connected to the part of our brain that produces conscious thoughts.

In terms of Social Intelligence, this is interesting because our capacity for empathy with another human being is based on this “subconscious” circuit. That’s why we tear up automatically when we see someone crying; unless of course we’ve been taught to consciously suppress this automatic reaction because “boys don’t cry” or something similar. However, suppressing this reaction requires energy and causes stress.

The path that triggers our defensive fight-or-flight response through the amygdala is faster, but less accurate, than the path through the thalamus. So we can find ourselves triggered in situations where there is no real danger. That’s a reasonable trade-off, because there’s little cost associated with running away from something that turns out not to be dangerous; better that than the other way around. Social interactions are an obvious example; we think there is danger because emotions are contagious and therefore we are affected by the emotional state of the people around us. Even if we mis-read them. We can’t help but take on stress if we are around people who are stressed out.

Some people’s amydalae are more sensitised than others, so some people are more sensitive than others. Us sensitive-types pay a price because we don’t just notice when other people are upset… we find it upsetting ourselves because of the emotional contagion caused by the way our brains are wired. And since neural networks learn by repeated exposure to the same stimuli, they can become more or less sensitive to stressful input depending on what we’re exposed to and whether we react habitually or not.

So the long and the short of all this is that stress, anxiety and other emotions really do get processed in a part of our brain that isn’t involved in consciousness. We aren’t even aware when our amygdala is going into fight-or-flight mode… though we may feel anxious, and then rationalise a reason why; which then becomes a viscous cycle unless we break it somehow. I notice at acting class my heart starts racing before I go onstage, even before I’ve consciously had a worrying thought like “I hope the class like what I do!”.

I feel pretty good today; only a bit tired, and very positive. I’m gonna spend the day resting before going to rep tonight. I have quite a big week on, but I’m looking forward to it. Hope you all are too!

Author: Graham

I'm a guy in his late 40's, recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since May 2009. I now offer coaching and support to other people with CFS/ME.