I have more terms of endearment for my wife than there are waves headed for the beach. And like waves, they just keep on coming.
Turn-of-the-century anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) first identified this phenomenon. People have more words for things that are most important to them. Snow is vitally important to those living within the Arctic Circle. North Alaskan Inuits have over 50 words for snow, and the Samis of northern Scandinavia have a thousand terms for reindeer.
In today’s advanced cultures, life is so complex that many of us seem to live under constant stress. So long as all of our balls remain juggled in the air, we are fine. But often they fall crashing to the ground, and we have to address the crisis. Stress is important because we can’t avoid it and we have to figure out how to alleviate it. Because stress is so important to us, we have developed quite a vocabulary to refer to these dropped balls, just as the Sami speak of reindeer:
- The sky is falling
- Everything has come crashing down
- I’ve just used one of my nine lives
- The s*** has hit the fan
- All hell has broken loose
- The end is near
- I’m packed in snowball that is rolling downhill gathering more snow
- Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket
- SNAFU (Situation normal—all fouled up!)
- The bottom fell out
- My life is like a three-ring circus without a circus master
- Everything is turned upside down
- I’m living in a whirlwind
- I’m feeling topsy-turvy
- The props have fallen out from under me/us
And there are more. I’ll bet you can add to this list by posting a comment below.
I recently wrote about “When You’re Not You.” Most people are not themselves when the bottom falls out. Those who are low in Big Five Need for Stability, or Neuroticism, are typically unaffected by life’s major stressors. It takes a prodigious amount of stress for these serene people to change behavior. That’s a minority of the population—about one in three. Good for them! But the rest of us—two out of every three—writhe as though someone were controlling us with an equalizer board turning our knobs to make us more intense in various ways. I am reminded of Auguste Rodin’s early 20th century sculpture La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell). It depicts the Thinker posed before over 100+ figures in hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The thinker represents those unaffected by turmoil—the calm one in three, while the characters in the background represent the rest of us who are affected by stress.
Most of us undergo a quantitative change under stress. We become more of what we have more of already. Each of us has traits that are stronger than others. For example, my imagination is stronger than my sociability, and my trust is stronger than my methodicalness. Under stress, being someone who is higher on Need for Stability, I become even stronger in imagination and trust. I will dream up wild escape plans and trust strangers whom I would normally keep at a distance.
To say we’re not our normal selves under major stress, I mean it in a quantitative sense, not a qualitative one. We are more intense in our salient traits.
- If we are normally trusting, we become more trusting under stress.
- If we tend towards perfectionism, under stress we become more perfectionistic.
- If we tend to have a temper, under stress we have an even quicker trigger.
- If sociable, more sociable.
- If solitary, even more solitary.
- If comfortable with the details, we wallow in them even more.
- If competitive, then even more so.
- If deferential, then we can become a doormat.
- If optimistic, then we become Pollyannaish.
- If pessimistic, then we become a doomsdayer.
So, the way we change under stress is that we become more of who we are, like a salty dish becoming more salty, a sweet dish more sugary, or a sour dish downright pungent. We change, but quantitatively, not qualitatively. In intensity, not in kind. Under stress it is as though our personality were a tongue that lost half of its taste buds and needs stronger flavors just to taste anything. Sock it to me, sock it to me. Turn up the volume.
A word to the wise: Perhaps this ramping up of who we are under stress has survival value, in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps it has worked to some creatures’ advantage to become more intense rather than different—to change how many stripes, not the kinds of stripes. Maybe fast gazelles ran even faster, clever creatures became even sneakier, when under attack. But we moderns are not always best served under stress by turning up the volume on our strengths. We need to question whether these natural tendencies serve our best interests. It might pay for us to consider not being more intense in who we are under stress, but the opposite. Maybe your sociability should yield to solitary reflection, my trust become more skeptical, and my imagination take back seat to being more practical and appreciative of the tried and true and what is known to work.
We are not gazelles who always need to run faster to escape the leopard. We are humans who can pause to reflect and consider our options. We don’t have to do it alone. Partners make great stress busters. In lieu of a partner, try aerobic exercise to find your calm spot that is conducive to problem solving.