Slay Your Paper Tigers


<strong>Slay Your Paper Tigers:</strong> Sure, we all know a pile of paperwork or a job interview is nothing like a bloody battle to the death with a saber toothed tiger - but do our bodies know that? Is our brain still wired for fight or flight regardless of the modern stakes? In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Julie discuss how and why our brains interpret minor annoyances as ancestral enemies.

Robert Lamb: With more than 26 million members, Netflix is the world's leading internet subscription service for enjoying movies and TV programs. For one low monthly price, Netflix members can instantly watch TV episodes and movies streamed directly to their TV, computers, consoles or tablets and receive DVDs delivered quickly to their homes. There are no late fees or due dates. Get a 30 day free trial by going to Netflix.com/blowthemind.

Julie Douglas: Welcome Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com

Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: And I'm Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: And today we are talking about tigers. We're talking about paper tigers, which instantly brings to mind like an origami, saber tooth tiger of a mint size, chasing you down in your dreams, catching up with you and just tearing into you with its - with a thousand paper cuts and just ripping you to shreds.

Julie Douglas: That's about right.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and it's kind of a stand in for many different things. Historically a paper tiger was a stand in for a country that really had sort of no political might, but posed a threat or was trying to pose a threat. But then it's been sort of used in the vernacular to mean some sort of threat that doesn't really have any physical manifestation and yet it can't help but chew your brains out.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean especially if you go ahead and apply the actual paper aspect of this to paperwork. As this podcast is coming out, we're smack dab in the middle of tax season, so everyone's - even though there's less paper involved in it if you're doing it online, but still all the paperwork of getting your taxes in. That is a huge paper tiger because you have - we were talking about this yesterday. It's not only the stress of the moment, but it's like an entire year, maybe an entire life's stress about money and about financial and about your various spending habits and your - and life choices: houses, your marital status. All of these things just wound up into one confusing task. And if you get it wrong, then - if you mess it up, then you end up having to pay more money or you go to jail. It can be a high stress situation.

Julie Douglas: Well, see that's the thing about these paper tigers is that they do cause stress and just even saying taxes, I noticed this - and maybe this is because I've had too much coffee this morning, but my palms are beginning to sweat because I'm starting to think about the anxiety that I've had before in trying to do my taxes. And, as you mentioned, if you mess up, whoa, that can be a year-long nightmare to try to repair.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, even more paperwork.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. So that is what we are talking about today because this is very interesting, this lightning fast physiological response that comes from the paper tigers, real or imagined. And really having their beginnings in real tigers, like saber tooth tigers, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah because again this is one of those examples where we go back to a mythical prehistoric plane where primordial humans are hanging out and occasionally saber tooth tigers jump out and eat them. Ignore the actual archeology of this example, but it's the idea that there was a time when humans didn't have it not, and that every day was a life and death battle with the environment and a predator could just decide to eat you.

Julie Douglas: And this something called distress response, right? It's really important to have distress response, particularly in this example. So what is happening when you're having this kind of response? Well, your heart rate just goes bananas, right? It goes out. Your blood flow increases. Your digestive system actually begins to shut down because you don't want to be digesting something; you want to use that energy to confront the problem in front of you. Same thing with your immune system, that gets repressed because, again, the bigger threat is in front of you, not some sort of germ that your immune system is trying to fight off. So temporarily your body says, "Hey, immune system you can knock it off for a couple minutes while we're trying to figure this out."

And then - I think this is so cool, your eyes - the pupils in your eyes actually dilate. They do this because they're trying to take in more light because when they do that you have this temporarily increased vision. So it's almost sort of like this superhuman moment that you have and it lasts just seconds.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, all the settings change. We go into this fear mode, this fight or flight mode. And we discussed before when we were talking about memory. That even memory gets kind of twisted about. There's that - the idea that everyone thinks that they remember exactly what they were wearing and eating on say 911 or if they're older when Kennedy was shot, but in reality, the brain kind of bypasses those memories and lets you not - it lets you - makes you think that you remember those things because ultimately the brain is saying, "Don't worry about your cereal. Don't worry about what you're wearing. You're in a stressed out mode, you need to worry about survival."

Julie Douglas: Yeah, it's macro not micro, we don't need to know details right now. We just need to know if this is a real treat in front of us, and that flight or fight is really defined by the adrenaline coursing through our bodies, the cortisol, which is the stress hormone that gets released. You probably have heard these examples of a mother of father picking up a thousand or two thousand pound car to try to release their child stuck underneath it. And that's a good example of this sort of superhuman strength or these abilities beyond ourselves that we can evoke when we are experiencing distress response.

Robert Lamb: So yeah, your body charges up to fight something or to run away. To take all of this energy and these new settings and apply them to either beating the tar out of a saber tooth tiger or running as fast as you can so it does not eat you.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and it's one the reasons why humans have been so successful as a species because this allows us to have - to make rapid fire decisions and act on them and a lot of times, particularly when we use that example from the past, saber tooth tiger, it can have lifesaving outcomes.

The problem with modern humans, I suppose you could say is that stress can be bad when you have insidious level of it. And when I say insidious levels, I mean that our body doesn't distinguish between a real saber tooth tiger and - well, to some degree and a paper tiger, right? Because distress response is the same no matter what. So if I have a deadline approaching or - this is a classic one, you think that you have sent an email to just one person and you have this paranoid feeling like, "Oh my god, I just sent that out to the entire company" and your palms begin to sweat and your heart begins to beat fast, that's - that is a reaction that is over exaggerated for the actual instance. But it still feels like a threat and this can be really dangerous to - long term to have this constant sort of low level stress about you.

As we had discussed in our episode about epigenome, these are the kinds of things, stress, that can flip those switches that control diseases or disorders. And it has a big effect on your cardiac health because you've got inflammation in the arteries. You've got all sorts of things going on that stress can do to your body. And I think this is kind of fascinating, too that increased cortisol levels, which come from the stress response, can actually begin to affect insulin production and that insulin can then make that decision about whether or not to burn off fat or to store it. So if you are at a constant low level of stress, it's a lot harder to lose weight because it's keeping all those fat stores in your body.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean it ultimately again comes down to this idea that all this stress builds up and then we're supposed to release that stress in the form of a fight or a flight.

Julie Douglas: But we don't.

Robert Lamb: But we don't. It's kind of like if you imagine a situation where they - the tiger - the saber tooth tiger almost attacks a bunch of times. Like it's just kind of stalking, toying with the prey.

Julie Douglas: I like the stalking analogy.

Robert Lamb: You know it's just going to wear you down. Like when is it going to attack? When is it going to actually - when the - when is this actually going to go down? And the stress keeps building and building and building. But then what if the tiger never attacks? Because I can't help but think back to our previous use of the saber tooth tiger example when we were talking about humor. The idea that laughter emerges when something that was perceived as a threat is suddenly realized to not be a threat. And then what happens? We laugh. And it's - this is also - this interesting, too because then what is laughter but this full body experience. You could almost look at that as a means of burning off some of the stress energy through the laughter. Like, "Oh, I can laugh about it now."

But where do you reach that point with some of these paper tigers? I mean even after you send in your taxes, do you have a really - laugh, ha, ha, ha. I got my - my taxes are off. That's great. They're done. I can laugh about it. No, not necessarily.

Julie Douglas: You're just trying to insert your laughter yoga agenda. I see where you're going with this.

Robert Lamb: I have no laughter yoga agenda.

Julie Douglas: All right. Let's take a quick break and when we get back we will talk about bosses who attack.

Robert Lamb: You know, Julie we've all experienced this particular problem. You're emailing a big file to a client, to a collaborator and it's too big to attach. You go to throw it in - I mean, we're always working with audio files, obviously for the podcast.

Julie Douglas: Right.

Robert Lamb: And they're often enormous right out of the bat. Or if you're dealing with photos that you're going to use in a blog post, using too large of an image, you can't attach it, right? Also in other cases you're sending a confidential file and there's no good way to send it securely, and then if you're out of the office, and you don't have access to your spreadsheet or your power point presentation, and you need to access information, they you need a good way to get ahold of a large file on the move. And luckily there's a solution to all of those problems, and it is called Share File, brought to you by Citrix. The powerful tool that millions of professionals rely on every day.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, unlike other services, Share File was designed specifically for business use and allows you to send files of almost any size and access your files from any computer or mobile device. It really enhances your work flow easily and securely. So if we have something top secret, I could share it with you with Share File.

Robert Lamb: Exactly. So like I said, this is a great way to deal with large files in any kind of a business situation. Especially if you're dealing with large RAW image files or you're dealing with large uncut, unedited sound files, what have you. We live in a world of files now and you've got to be able to move them back and forth. So we like it. We want you to try it as well. So you have to try Share File today. You can get started with a special risk free offer, a full 30 day free trial and all you have to do is go to sharefile.com, click on the radio microphone and enter the promo code stuff. Remember, visit sharefile.com, type in our promo code stuff and start sending some enormous files with ease.

Robert Lamb: All right we're back and we're talking about what happens when there's a perceived threat, we build up all that stress in your body, and then as an organism we're supposed to then release that stress by either fleeing from the thing that is endangering us or fighting the thing that is endangering us. But what happens when the thing that is giving us all the stress, cannot be fled from and cannot be directly opposed. What if it's something like your taxes or just like a massive amount of paperwork you have to get done?

Julie Douglas: Or what if it takes an actual human, physical embodiment in the form of your boss? I mean -

Robert Lamb: Because really you could fight your boss, you could run from your boss, you could quit your job and move to a different city and never see that boss again, both of these options are on the table. But generally speaking within a society - within a culture we have all of these weird rules. When you lay culture over any kind of biological reality, all of these complications come up. So you end up in a situation where you're like, "My boss is my enemy. I want to fight him or her. I want to flee from him or her, but neither of those are an option because I need a job. And this is where I am. Maybe this is who I am." You can't take either of those options.

Julie Douglas: Yeah and the funny thing is, is like your boss has a boss, too and is experiencing the same thing when his boss or her boss comes and stands over him or her and begins to tick off a to do list, or to say something got screwed up. You begin to feel that stress response because, again, it doesn't matter if it's a real saber tooth tiger or your boss just looming over you, you begin to get anxious about the situation.

So, of course, there are things you can do here, other than actually going mano mano with your boss, which as you pointed out is probably not a good idea. You've got to have some sort of release and we've talked about a release in the form of meditation before or yoga, laughter yoga, but for my money I have to say that I think that exercise, that burst of energy that you talked about when you think about our ancestors running from a saber tooth tiger. That I think is the thing that is most helpful here.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Because your body wants to run, so get on a treadmill. Run a little bit.

Julie Douglas: Well and you've got a chemical cocktail in your body swirling around with no outlet, so that's why we get those - the threat may have disappeared, but later on you're still stuff with the effects of stress. So if you can burn off those chemicals in the form of exercise, well then you just accomplished the same thing as running from a saber tooth tiger.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so high intensity exercise is a good way to handle it. Also sleep - a good night's sleep is a good way to do it. I mean, we've all had that situation. Hopefully we're all at a point where we realize that if you're stressed out about something that might be a little silly like Monday night, go to sleep and see if it's still bothering you Tuesday morning. This is - I highly recommend you have a nasty email you're about to send out to somebody? Let it sit. Wait until the next day to actually send it and see if it's still as important 24 hours later.

Julie Douglas: It's true because the idea here is that you just want to lower your blood pressure and return to normal and get out of that heightened state in whatever way that you can. So again it makes sense to me to just do something for 30 minutes to burn off those chemicals. And by the way, studies have shown that when you do this - this regular exercise that it also helps to control stress in future episodes, so you don't have an over exaggeration or as much response to whatever stimuli it is in front you of.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I've also wondered to what extent violent video games, or even just mildly violent video games to provide some sort of outlet for that as well because if we're building up this feeling of we need to fight something, then maybe it does bode well to then go home and shoot a bunch of robots. I don't know.

Julie Douglas: Yeah but then you don't have the physical expression.

Robert Lamb: That's right. You're still - if anything you're maybe just massaging that feeling a little bit when it really needs to be throttled.

Julie Douglas: Do you think that we could institute HSW dance offs in the office to release our stress?

Robert Lamb: I think it might stress out some people.

Julie Douglas: That's true.

Robert Lamb: I don't know. Everyone has their different release. But I mean for my own part, I definitely see a big difference ever since I started doing yoga regularly. I found that if there's a week that goes by where I don't actually make it to yoga, my stress level all week is just a little higher for not having that release.

Julie Douglas: Well we had talked about the default mode network, too and that's really at play here because it's that chattering midline of the brain that you have to quiet, so if you can do that through yoga or meditation, then you can help to tamp down the response to stress as well. But again, exercise, too, a quick way just to blow it out of there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It could be as simple as a quick dance off. It could be a simple as get up, go outside, walk around the building, come back in. Just do something to burn off some of that fight or flight chemical cocktail that's brewing inside you.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. So those are just a couple ways to shred those paper tigers.

Robert Lamb: All right, well let's call the robot over here and get some quick listener mail.

All right the two that come to us today here, these are actually Facebook messages. The first one comes from anonymous. Anonymous writes and it says, "Hello Robert and Julie. I love your podcast. I'd like share with you a response to your regurgitation celebration podcast. It really helped me accept that vomiting is a natural part of life and can actually be beneficial depending on the circumstances. Unfortunately vomiting for me is maladaptive. I have panic disorder and OCD and I inevitably vomit in response to a panic attack. My panic attacks are only perpetuated by the fear of vomiting in public. As a result I obsess about vomiting 90% of the day. Cognitive behavioral therapy has helped me manage the disorders. I just wanted to drop you all a line and let you know that your regurgitation episode has given me a new outlook on vomiting and makes me feel less alone when I do vomit from a panic attack. Sincerely, Anonymous."

Well, that's really good to hear to whatever extent any of the information that we share through the podcast can provide individuals with slightly different, hopefully more positive outlook on the body, on their behavior on the world around them, I think it's awesome.

Julie Douglas: Yeah because regurgitation is really, at the end of the day, a defense system, right? So it's gone a little bit awry in that case but to know that it is a defense system is I think comforting.

Robert Lamb: I feel like when I was younger I definitely - I was scared of vomiting. It would just freak me out. But then the last time or two that I got really sick, I realized this is going to happen -

Julie Douglas: You'll feel better.

Robert Lamb: I'll feel better for it. It's going to be disgusting, but I'm going to feel better. And it's - my body wants to vomit, so I should want to vomit.

Julie Douglas: That's a good bumper sticker by the way.

Robert Lamb: Yes, it's kind of long, but I think it would work.

We also heard from a listen by the name of Andrew. Andrew writes in and says, "Love the show. Have you guys done a show on the placebo effect? I would like to hear your take on the topic. Keep up the great work."

And yes, we did do an episode on the placebo effect titled "The Placebo Effect: Brain Over Pain." And that was published in 2011, but if you go to the RSS page for our podcast, you can find it there in list and if you want to find that RSS link, it's always at the bottom of any blog post that we put up about the episode. So just look for it there. But yeah, that was a cool episode.

Julie Douglas: You know speaking of paper tigers and stress, sometimes I think about that instance - and I don't know if we covered specifically in that episode, the placebo one, but I think about the person who was taking - who was in a drug trial and they were taking the placebo, but they knew about the side effects and they had taken the side effects to heart so much so that they ended up at the emergency room in horrible health because their body began to shut down.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: And I think, god it's just so powerful that the brain - the mind over matter, really.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean with the paper tigers you end up feeling the possible negative outcome to whatever you're doing. If you start thinking about, "Oh did I send that email out to the entire company, or just to my friend," you really start experiencing the reality, physically of having sent that out to all of these people. You start putting yourself in a virtual fear environment in your own mind.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and just like this little death that you begin to experience or think you're experiencing.

Robert Lamb: Yeah and not the good time.

Julie Douglas: Nope. Oh -

Robert Lamb: That was another episode. So hey, if you guys would like to reach out to us and share some thoughts on this or other topics, we'd love to hear from you. What are your paper tigers? And then to what extent have you been able to defeat them? Let us know. You can find us on Facebook. You can find us on Tumbler. We are Stuff to Blow Your Mind on both of those. You can find us on twitter where our handle is blowthemind.

Julie Douglas: And you can also drop us a line at blowthemind@discovery.com

For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com

Robert Lamb: With more than 26 million members, Netflix is the world's leading internet subscription service for enjoying movies and TV programs. For one low monthly price, Netflix members can instantly watch TV episodes and movies streamed directly to their TV, computers, consoles or tablets and receive DVDs delivered quickly to their homes. There are no late fees or due dates. Get a 30 day free trial by going to Netflix.com/blowthemind.

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Duration: 21 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: stress, psychology, biology, neuroscience