Monday, May 9, 2011

Psychological factors that reduce stress - II

I could enjoy reading about various scientific discoveries that I hadn't given much thought to earlier because I don't have the kind of science phobia that Steven Pinker describes in The Blank Slate:
The fear that scientific knowledge undermines human values reminds me of the opening scene in Annie Hall, in which the young Alvy Singer has been taken to the family doctor:

MOTHER: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.
DOCTOR: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
MOTHER: Tell Dr. Flicker. [Answers for him.] It's something he read.
DOCTOR: Something he read, huh?
ALVY: [Head down.] The universe is expanding.
DOCTOR: The universe is expanding?
ALVY: Well, the universe is everything and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
MOTHER: What is that your business? [To the doctor.] He stopped doing his homework.
ALVY: What's the point?

The scene is funny because Alvy has confused two levels of analysis: the scale of billions of years with which we measure the universe, and the scale of decades, years, and days with which we measure our lives. As Alvy's mother points out, "What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

People who are depressed at the thought that all our motives are selfish are as confused as Alvy. They have mixed up ultimate causation (why something evolved by natural selection) with proximate causation (how the entity works here and now). The mix-up is natural because the two explanations can look so much alike.
Another psychological factor that reduces stress is the presence of social support networks. Robert Sapolsky writes in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:
Rats only occasionally use it, but primates are great at it. Put a primate through something unpleasant: it gets a stress-response. Put it through the same stressor while in a room full of other primates and ... it depends. If those primates are strangers, the stress-response gets worse. But if they are friends, the stress-response is decreased. Social support networks -- it helps to have a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, an ear to listen to you, someone to cradle you and to tell you it will be okay.


Social support is certainly protective for humans as well. This can be demonstrated even in transient instances of support. In a number of subtle studies, subjects were exposed to a stressor such as having to give a public speech or perform a mental arithmetic task, or having two strangers argue with them, with or without a supportive friend present. In each case, social support translated into less of a cardiovascular stress-response.
I have written about the wonderful support system that I have. Another psychological factor that reduces stress is control which also I had mentioned earlier.

It is said that life is lived forward and analysed backward. I did not know about these things before my stroke. I read this book a couple of years ago and tried to think of the various factors under these heads that helped me to cope with the changed circumstances.


  1. Hello Suresh!
    I have read your blog and I think it's exciting to see the world from your perspective.
    I am nursing student and have been writing a work of in-locked. I would think it would be interesting if you wanted to read it. It is written in Swedish but I can send you a Google on translate documents in English. It is optional but for me it would be really fun if you would take the time to it.
    Sincerely Ingela Westin "Ordkrigaren"

  2. Ingela,

    Of course I would like to read it. My mail ID is