Computer mouse can cause electric shock

Loss of control leads to stress


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3. Doing nothing, cortisol, and brain research

Stress is a complicated type. He also reacts to little things. OK then

As a lazy dog ​​you develop tricks. Mine was to dope myself with stress as a student. Only at the last moment did I learn the exam material: French vocabulary, Latin chunks, solutions in physics. In record time the evening before, often even in the breaks before the test. It made me excited, but very focused. Full of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine and cortisol, I achieved passable performance.

As an adult, I learned to prepare for appointments early on. But on Monday morning, of all days, when I wanted to call the psychosomatic specialist Eva Peters, everything went wrong. Before the interview, I wanted to read up on the topic - and slept through it. I ran to the subway - and missed it. I called the researcher and was seven minutes late. And before I started, the scientist asked: "What do you already know about the subject?"

Nearly nothing. Exceptional situation. Guilty conscience. Blood pressure under the top of the skull. Sweat poured from every pores of the haunted reporter. And I hadn't even had a coffee yet.

During my research on stress, I got to know what the psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer calls the cause of all stress: the lack of control. In his new book Little Red Riding Hood and the stress he describes an experiment. A rat is sitting in the cage. Researchers use the wires in the ground to give them electric shocks. The animal has the opportunity to avoid this. A lamp lights up before each power surge. If the rat succeeds in pressing a button in time, it will be spared the shock. She mostly succeeds in doing this, but not always.

A second cage is connected to the shock apparatus. Inside: also a rat, condemned to idleness. It "depends," says Spitzer. Every time the first rat reacts too slowly and receives an electric shock, it also hits the second rat, who does not have to pay attention to the lamp or lever. "What do you think," asks Spitzer, "which rat is more stressed?"

It's rat number 2. She is electrocuted in the same number of times and, unlike rodent 1, is not under the pressure to react quickly. Nevertheless, more stress hormones flood through the body of the "dependent" animal, increasing its likelihood of suffering from stress-related conditions: stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, infections, cancer. "Rat 1 doesn't have its situation completely under control, but to a certain extent, while Rat 2 doesn't," says Spitzer. "We are stressed when we lose control."

This explains why not only top managers suffer from burnout, but also many Hartz IV recipients. Those who "do nothing" can have stress because they have been suffering from lack of money or loneliness for years. Just as little does it primarily affect "top performers" at the top of the hierarchy. The stress researcher Robert Sapolsky observed this in baboons. The more an alpha animal lets its arbitrariness out on lower-ranking baboons, the more stress hormones circulate in the blood of the underdogs. The more often they are sick, the sooner they die.

Loss of control even explains the acute stress in situations that condemn us to absolute idleness: traffic jams. Nothing causes so many commuters to despair as the agonizing minutes in which they have no power over their advancement.

The reaction starts in the brain. Our processor, made up of 100 billion nerve cells, evaluates a situation as dangerous based on the information received via the sensory organs and sounds the alarm. Sometimes preliminary decisions are made early in the area of ​​the thalamus - before the more deliberate cerebral cortex begins to think. The fast-track procedure can be life-saving, but it also explains short-circuit actions in road traffic where the stressed contemporary did not have time to think.

The almond kernel implements decisions. It triggers emotional reactions such as fear, anger or anger and activates the stress center in the brain stem, which gets the body going - but also whistles it back when the situation is under control. If the reason for the alarm persists, the second activation line is required: cortisol is released. The hormone inhibits inflammation. The body prepares for a longer struggle. This stress only makes us sick if it persists. If we don't have the opportunity to go back in the meantime.

At the beginning we are still well equipped. "The immune system," says Eva Peters, "switches to fast and dirty." The number of killer cells in the blood increases, the first line of defense against enemies that could penetrate us through a wound is in place. Under constant stress, however, the cortisol release leads to "collateral damage" by suppressing fever and other defensive reactions. Above all, diseases that arise on the basis of an ongoing, chronic inflammatory reaction would then have a chance: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis. Suddenly the neurodermatitis itches on the arms and legs, the herpes blisters on the corners of the mouth return, and because of a simple cold we lie sick for a long time because the chronically increased cortisol level prevents the fever reaction. In 2008, Peters and colleagues at the Charité in Berlin discovered the mechanism that causes eczema to sprout in phases of psychological turbulence. They had exposed mice to terrifying noise. The ordeal caused mast cells to secrete histamine - the nuisance that causes itching and swells the skin.

I calm down, the stress reaction at the beginning of the conversation has subsided. I ask Eva Peters what she thinks of the kick I gave myself as a teenager before exams. "A logical approach, cortisol and adrenaline sharpen the memory," she says. Stage fright has exactly this effect: "Dancers and actors never lose it, otherwise they would no longer be good."

My early turbo learning technique also meant the depletion of energy reserves. An extremely inefficient method of developing content. Peters suspects an ineffective one: "You have activated the short-term memory, and nothing sticks there." She is right. All the vocabulary and solutions that were powered into the brain in the blink of an eye with tons of released fatty acids and blood fats: long gone.

Research teaches us that stress helps. In moments. But he's too dangerous a friend to have with him all the time.