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What about animals?

The talk of Kelly McGonigal implies that stress is only problematic when individuals classify it as bad. However, stress is also affecting animals, with stressed individuals living less long (e.g. I have difficulties to conceive how animals could classify stress as bad and suffer from it (because of their limited cognitive abilities), but also how humans could not be sensitive to stress when animals are. Any ideas how to reconcile the two?

  • Sep 25 2013: Hi - I thought the question was a good question. Here is a possible answer to it. A. Human beings are, as Charles Taylor has it, 'self-interpreting animals'. This fundamentally changes their being or nature by comparison with animals, which are not. For humans, how we understand ourselves affects who and how we are. B. If a human construes their physiological alertness in a positive manner - as 'excitement', say - then this might affect their neurohormonal, autonomic reactivity etc profile in a good way. If however a human construes it as bad, then the psychoneuroimmunological responses will be extra bad. C. An animal can't self-interpret and so they just are lumbered with a default health-damaging response to prolonged stress. D. The real problem is surely with Kelly McGonigal's somewhat reductive definition of 'stress'. As I understand it, 'stress' started out life as a physiological concept when then became broadened by metaphorical extension to the psychological life it enjoys today. I would suggest that, in order for her argument to go through, she has to redefine it back into something like its old life - as a matter of physiological reactivity. But that isn't how we use the concept today. Since we are self-interpreting animals, what it means for us to be psychologically stressed is in part for us to take ourselves to be struggling. Does this help?
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    Sep 11 2013: You are right Christophe, animals do stress and miss Kelly presents the issue without differentiating between stress as a response to an actual situation and stress without obvious reason that has become chronically.

    Normal stress is followed by relaxation after the cause for it diminishes. This is a healthy condition because for the time necessary stress mobilizes energy to face any challenge by suspending bodily activities that use energy for nutrition and repair. If stress continues and relaxation becomes impossible this mode of the body continues also and will eventually produce all kinds of diseases and complaints.

    If the environment is the cause for stress and the animal can't adapt or change the circumstances stress will cause that animal or plant for that matter to wither away.
    • Sep 11 2013: Thanks Frans for your answer.

      It indeed seems important to make the distinction. From what I understand now, individuals can avoid harmful effects of normal stress by perceiving this type of stress as being good. However, chronic stress is dangerous and its effects on health cannot be avoided by beliefs about whether or not stress is good.

      This is why animals (and plants as you rightly pointed out) are also affected by chronic stress, be it physical or social.
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    Sep 13 2013: This is such a poor question. To start with, it infers that humans are not animals, a common, but flawed cognitive bias.

    Re: "I have difficulties to conceive how animals could classify stress as bad and suffer from it (because of their limited cognitive abilities)"

    Animals may not have the self awareness that humans have but the have cognition . Their value of what is "good and bad" is determined by their ability to maintain a balance in relationship to themselves and their environment.

    Negative stress can have profound effects on the body.
    'Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences' by Robert Sapolsky

    Additionally, where does McGonigal imply "that stress is only problematic when individuals classify it as bad." The body can experience stress without conscious awareness.
    • Sep 14 2013: Well, I guess Kelly McGonigal implies that stress is only problematic when individuals classify it as bad, because the study she referred to asked the people whether or not they thought stress is good or bad. She also says precisely: "How you think about stress matters". This renders self-awareness necessary to have an effect. As you rightly write, "animals may not have the self awareness". Therefore, their cognitive abilities prevent them from a) putting a name on stress, and b) classifying stress as good or bad.

      The fact that animals are able to maintain or not their stasis is not enough to compensate for this lack of cognitives abilities. If they are stuck in a negative "balance in relationship to themselves and their environment" (for instance, they cannot emigrate), they would all rate stress as bad and would all suffer from it. No animal could be stuck in this negative balance and not suffer from it, justly because animals cannot rate this negative balance as good.

      Hence the paradox I do not understand: stress has less severe impacts on health when rated as good, but to rate it as good an individual need to be cognitively able to do so. Animals do feel the stress but cannot classify it as good or bad, unless I missed a study somewhere. And animals feel stress so much that, as you rightly point out, it can have "profound effects on the body". So they act as if they could rate stress as bad.

      Besides, if stress makes us social, as Kelly also reports in her talk, then one should expect that stressful environments contain more social animal species. I do not think this has ever been shown.

      And, by the way, I am fully aware that humans are animals.
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        Sep 14 2013: Saplosky clearly refers to stress in rodents and primates. Additionally, you can view the research of Eric Nestle, who describes depression and lack of nurturing in mice causing epigenetic changes, when cortisol levels are measured. (see pages 81 & 82) So there is evidence of stress in these rodents.

        "Although depression is a common problem in the human population, not all people are equally vulnerable. And we found the same is true for mice. Roughly one third of the males that receive a daily “dose” of social defeat appear to be resistant to depression: despite being subjected to the same relentless stress, hey show none of the withdrawal or listlessness displayed by their susceptible peers. This resiliency reaches down to the level of their genes. Many of the stress-induced epigenetic changes we see in susceptible mice do not occur in the resilient mice. Instead these animals show epigenetic modification of an additional set of genes in the reward center that are not similarly modified in the mice that become depressed. The findings suggest that this alternative pattern of modification is protective and that resiliency is more than just an absence of vulnerability; it involves an active epigenetic program that can be called on to combat the effects of chronic stress "
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        Sep 14 2013: Just as humans feel stress in situations that are uncomfortable for them, domesticated dogs are exposed to stressful situations all the time. The irony is that much as you might want to relieve stress in your pet, dogs cannot communicate using human language. They can only use body language to convey their displeasure and stress. The conscientious owner tries to decode his language by interpreting it in the right manner.
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    Sep 11 2013: chrisophe, would you mind telling me what stresses Kelly is talking about. I suppose animals could be more sensitive to stress because they don't have as much of an ability to change a situation to their liking, or ask for compensation. For example, if a freeway takes an animal's habitat, the animal can't fight it or ask for help relocating, whereas human beings can fight it or at least fight for help relocating (nowadays, the government usually gives people a check when a government project takes people's home, but perhaps the government didn't always do that, perhaps there was a time when people had to fight for it.)
    • Sep 11 2013: Thanks Greg for your answer.

      I think Kelly is referring to the normal stress, even though this was not very clear in her talk.

      There is an important distinction to be made between chronic and normal stress. And the causes of chronic stress are much more difficult to change than for normal stress, even for humans.

      So I still think that humans facing chronic stress will have health consequences, independently from how they judge stress.

      However, I still have not read the paper Kelly is referring to, and it might help understand better what she meant.