Why do we do it?

  • Derek Roger

In the Challenge of Change Resilience Training we define stress as ruminating about emotional upset, and there’s a question that is almost always asked: ‘Why do we ruminate?’  The widespread oversimplification of evolutionary processes leads many to assume that it is somehow embedded in our genes, and that it got there because when we lived in caves we had to be vigilant about the predators around us.  For a behaviour to evolve there has first to be an accident, a fault in DNA transcription.  This mutation will be selected for and passed on only if it enhances sexual selection or access to food – hence aggression is positively selected, since the more aggressive animal mates more often and more effectively chases competitors for food from its territory.  

Human behaviour doesn’t work quite as simply as that.  When did you last have to fight off other shoppers for things on supermarket shelves?  How many rivals did you have to beat up to have your relationship with wife/husband/partner?  The error of generalising unquestioningly from other animals to humans was articulated by Sir David Attenborough in a recent interview for the BBC by Louis Theroux (reported on in the Radio Times, 10-16 June 2017).  Theroux talks about what he calls alpha-male behaviour, describing it as a kind of peacocking, and asks Sir David if he sees parallels between that and human behaviour.  The answer is unequivocal: drawing such unwarranted conclusions is dangerous because “our behaviours and consciousness are so hugely different from anything else.  To reduce human behaviour to other animal behaviour is intellectually irresponsible”.  In case there was any doubt, in a later answer in the interview he says, “These man-animal comparisons can be manipulated and distorted into what people want it to say, but biologically it’s irresponsible.”   

Evolution selects beneficial genes.  Rumination is about the least beneficial way you can behave.  Why would the blind watchmaker select genes that ensure a more miserable and possibly shorter life?  Popular ideas around territorial behaviour provide an excellent illustrative example of gene mythology.  If groups of deer mice are left to expand, at some point the population becomes socially dysfunctional and collapses through reduced fertility and increased predation of newborns.  This led to thinking that social dysfunction like crime is higher in cities and slums because of overcrowding, but it turned out that the ‘overcrowding’ population collapse in deer mice happened with numbers ranging from 6 to 60.  So even with other animals, not as simple as it seems, but from our perspective, an overcrowding effect that does offer a more useful model is the collapse of a population of Sika deer that had been introduced to James Island.  There were no natural predators to account for the die-off that eventually occurred amongst the animals, but autopsies showed that while their body weight was low, their adrenal glands were up to 80% enlarged – in other words, their immune systems had been compromised by persistent elevations in adrenaline and cortisol. 

In the case of the deer, the hyper-vigilance provoked by so many competitors had produced the effect.  In humans, the agent is rumination.  Consistent and continuous demand – genuine chronic stress – had happened for the deer when they were artificially introduced to a predator-free island and their numbers grew unchecked.  The equivalent chronic demand is very rare in human experience, but when it does occur it has the same effect: carers of relatives with dementia are ‘on call’ round the clock, and they show significantly delayed healing of experimental punch-biopsy wounds.  These findings point to the effects of chronic stress (in other words, rumination) as opposed to so-called ‘acute stress’, which should more appropriately be called pressure rather than stress. 

Another reason for rumination that’s sometimes suggested is cultural demand, and it certainly is true that contemporary work culture will often promote the idea that unless you’re ‘stressed’ you’re just not dedicated enough.  In fact, the less stressed people are, the more productively they work: happy people self-evidently work best.  The problem is a consequence of yet another myth, that there’s ‘good stress’ that can be your friend and will help motivate you.  This isn’t stress at all, just pressure, which is a useful (and indeed, unavoidable) fact of life.  Pressure only becomes stress when ruminating about emotional upset is added.  The problem is compounded by how often people will moan (endlessly) about how stressed they are, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; one of the things we encourage people on the CoC programme to change is their language, to acknowledge the pressure they may be under but not to mislabel it as ‘stress’.

There are other forces in society that seem bent on inducing stress so that we can be sold solutions, but these are all factors that might sustain rumination.  The question remains, why do we do it in the first place?  Why do we choose stress?  In the case of the crowding research, what provides a better explanation for human ‘territorial’ behaviour than generalising from mice is to introduce a more human dimension, which is privacy.  Our ‘territories’ are houses, bought and sold as commodities that don’t supply us with sustenance but do allow us to regulate exposure – other animals eat, defecate and copulate publicly, constantly exposed and competing.  In the same way, we use a particularly human behaviour in the Challenge of Change programme to explain why we ruminate: our sense of self.  This is not uniquely human – higher apes also have a sense of themselves as separate individuals – but it is the human version of it that provides the answer to our question.

The way we introduce this is to ask the participants who the central character is in their ruminations, and the answer is unhesitatingly ‘me’.  Here’s an illustrative example: you have an argument about something with someone, and you end up losing the argument.  For the next few days or weeks, what happens when you’re on your own, maybe when you’re driving to and from work?  You replay the argument over and over, but every time you win!  Sorry, you lost, which remains true no matter how much you’d like to rewrite history.  What has happened is that your sense of self-worth – your self-esteem – has been diminished, and what rumination is dedicated to is trying to reinstate it.  Self-esteem is unfortunately a rather abstract psychological construct, but it has an unmistakable meaning for us – there is never any hesitation in the participants pointing to themselves when asked who the central character is.  And it doesn’t have to be you imagining winning something you lost: ‘me’ will just as likely be cast as ‘poor, all-suffering me’ as ‘me the hero’.

What our own studies have shown is not only a significant association between low self-esteem and rumination but also that people with low self-esteem have delayed cardiovascular recovery from laboratory induced stressors.  Although self-esteem isn’t addressed directly as part of the Challenge of Change, the implicit aim of the training can be seen as enhancing self-esteem: as resilience grows people become more confident in themselves and their own worth, and are able to maintain a detached perspective by letting go of the negative self-judgements that would otherwise serve to reinforce low self-regard.  What you can begin to realise is that it was, after all, no more than an argument that you lost.  Win some/lose some; let go and come back to the present.


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