October 11, 2013
What is the Difference Between a Human and a Water Buffalo?

We are in week 4 of 5. Before we wrap up the topic of the brain and health in a nice bow we need to discuss how your body can cope with stress. We have discussed the reward center, your survival system, and how stress occurs. We know that stress is simply a perception of our ability to handle the demands that are upon us. We also know that our survival system is always on the lookout for stressors (potential threats to our survival). Lastly, we know that food serves as a coping mechanism and helps mask the pain of stress without actually doing anything to solve it. Now it is time to discuss how your body can actually manage stress.

This will not be a discussion about time management or positive thinking for stress management. While both of those topics are great and have huge impacts on your levels of stress, we will be focusing on three things:

1. Perception
2. Exercise
3. Social support


Last week we discussed stress and the week before was about your survival system, and we will be referencing that info in this topic. Our actual feelings and emotions of stress are typically from anxiety or worry. But why the heck are we anxious? What is there to be anxious about? The answer is death. You may feel stressed, but your survival system thinks that you are at risk of dying if you do not do something about your situation. This is because we are herd animals. Yes, humans are herd animals. Wolves live in packs; we live in towns and cities. Herd animals survive because they can expect the support and safety that comes with living in a group. A herd of water buffalo has no problem warding off hungry lions. But a lone water buffalo better get back to the herd if it wants to be safe. Having a herd promotes safety and expands the alarm system (creating more effective protection). For a herd animal, this is instinctual. Check out this lion below. What do you think is running through his head? He should not have messed with the herd.

 But what is the difference between a water buffalo and a human? We have a rational thinking brain. This allows us to create culture and complex social organizations, but we still are herd animals in our brains. We need to be around people and we need expectations. We have set up social rules that we expect people to follow. These expectations remind us that everything is ok and things are fine. When someone goes against our expectations, we see this as a threat. “Oh no, that stupid person driving did not use their blinker. Are they trying to make me dead?” “Hey, jaywalker! What are you doing walking across the street?” “Hey random person walking down the street talking loudly to yourself, you are freaking me out! Quiet down.”

Even if there is a reasonable explanation for all of the above situations (a broken blinker, a guy running from a rabid dog, and someone yelling through their Bluetooth device) because they are acting outside our expectations of socially accepted behavior we assess them as risks and it initiate a stress response.  In the workplace, a similar thing happens. If your boss places a big pile of work on your desk and you were not expecting it, your brain sees this as a threat. This workload was not expected, you could not plan for it, and what happens if you cannot complete it? Will you get a bad review? Will you get fired? Will you lose your social standing amongst your peers? If so, this could affect your ability to provide for yourself and family and you could DIE! But wait, you are not going to die.

This is where perception is everything. The stress response is not meant to make you anxious and worried so that you do nothing about it. The stress response primes you for action. It helps prepare you to address the challenge in front of you. Stress is not a bad thing, it is necessary. Those pain signals of stress (anxiety) are meant to give you an emotion reason to change your situation. If a water buffalo gets lost from the herd, it does not sit there and think, “oh no I am so stressed and I can’t do anything about it. I better just sit here in despair and wait to greet a hungry lion.” Heck no. It moves! It acts! It searches and finds its herd. It seeks the relief of that pain by finding safety and finding the herd. Where our rational brains can set us free, it also can create dread, exaggerations, and excessive worrying which can critically injure our ability to act.

When you start to feel stressed pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. I am willing to bet they will be negative in nature. Don’t worry, this is natural. But then, take a moment to think about the physiological truth behind your stress. You are being primed and motivated to act. The physiological event of stress is actually for your benefit. With practice, you can create a positive response and emotional motivation to take action.


Let’s fly through this. There is a whole bunch of awesome things that exercise does for your body. I would be remiss not to bring it up while talking about the brain, as well. Exercise helps overcome the feelings of stress. Remember how that water buffalo got stranded and then chose to move. It was motivated to move! Moving made it feel better. Finally, when it reached its herd, it received a feeling of relief. This entire process is due to an activation of your reward center. High levels of dopamine motivates the buffalo to act. Finding the herd results in a serotonin release creating a biobalanced state (dopamine and serotonin are balanced, and the serotonin creates a feeling of reward.)

If you are feeling stressed then exercise will help you feel better. Feelings of anxiety are almost always caused from increased levels of dopamine, and exercise helps balance your neurochemicals. There is an excellent book written by Dr. John J. Ratey called Spark. It is all about exercise and the brain. If you happen to use your brain for anything, I highly recommend you read it. In it he discusses exercise and how it affects anxiety and depression. He has a great quote, which I will repeat here, “Exercise is as effective as a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac.” In effect, exercise is an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. Even if medications are required for depression and anxiety management, exercise should be a part of the treatment plan. If you feel stress, anxiety, or mildly depressed, exercise can help to balance your neurochemicals and make you feel at ease.

The exercise you need to do to feel better is non-specific. Just move. Do cardio, lift weights, or play racquetball. You just have to move. And read that book! Again it is called Spark. Here is the Amazon link.


When the water buffalo is stressed, it gets back to the herd! When it is in the herd, it is not stressed. This is due to the hormone Oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the “love hormone” due to its role in pair bonding. Oxytocin has a much larger role than mate selection: it is the reason you desire to be near others. This is not to say that this makes you extroverted or anything of the sort. It motivates you to be near others and close to others. Being close to others is vital to our survival. If you don’t believe me, try living in solitary confinement, without seeing or speaking to anyone. You would go insane. Sure you might be able to last a day or even a week, but eventually you will feel a strong desire to connect.

Oxytocin is a released when during touch, sexual contact, when someone earns your trust, and even during stressful situations. Below is a list of some of the effects of Oxytocin on the body:

Increases: relaxation, trust, feeling connection with others and the desire to connect with others, sensory processing, memory, pair bonding, learning ability.

Decreases: Aggression, anxiety, stress, glucocorticoid release.

When you get stressed, your brain and body crave connection. A social support network will help you decrease your feelings of stress along with the hormones involved in chronic stress. Being excluded can add to your stress. Exclusion is painful. It is risky and your brain sees this as a threat. Connection and inclusion is rewarding and makes your brain feel safe (and therefore decreases stress).

To wrap this up, let’s quickly review the topics above.

When you feel stressed, you are actually feeling the readiness to act. You can choose to look at a situation as a negative stressor or as a physiological process priming you to take action. You are motivated to move, so you should be moving! This is exercise. Also, your motivation to act may include being near others or even relying on others for your success. Exclusion is painful. Find someone to be on your team and help each other be successful. If you need another quick read about social support, check out “You are a Fitness Superhero,” or “Assemble Your Team: 3 Reasons for Group Support.”

Next week we will be finishing this topic by bringing this all together.

In the meantime, be healthy and be awesome.

Written by Clark Masterson

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