The Perverse Positive Feedback of Stress

Most phenomena in nature, i.e., those things that animals evolved to handle, are dominated by negative feedback mechanisms. For example, when a stone drops into a pond, energy is released in the form of a splash, along with concentric concussion waves that dissipate outwards until equilibrium is once again restored. That's negative feedback. By contrast, a forrest fire, if it gets hot enough, can actually create its own high winds that make it increasingly hot, increasing wind even more, until such point as there's no more fuel. That's a rare positive feedback, and even still, it's limited. A nuclear detonation is an example of a quite pronounced positive feedback: a chain reaction.

A longtime friend of mine, Richard Wilson of Sentium Strategic Communications, recently sent out a newsletter, and while it's focussed mainly on the financial crisis, I think it has broad application. I thought I'd share a relevant portion with you.

The newspapers tell you everything is crashing. Television reports speak only of doom and gloom.

The stock market reacts to this news and goes up and down like an out of control yo-yo.

Don't despair. There is something you can do about it.

First, turn off the TV. Don't buy the newspaper. Turn your car radio from the newstalk station to some relaxing music.

Take a walk and look at things until you're feeling better and the world doesn't seem quite so hostile to you and your business.

OK. Now you're ready to get started.

Let's look at some facts. Current unemployment is about 7.7% in the hardest hit parts of the country. Stop and think about that for a moment. If that's true, then that means that 92.3% of the population is still employed!

These people still eat food, wear clothes, drive cars, and even go to the movies.

Despite what the media might want you to believe, all of the money did not disappear overnight. People are still living their lives. Many are still living quite well.

A few days ago, Apple Computer announced its 4th quarter results with a gross margin of 34.7%. This was one of their best quarters in history. A key factor in their success? Sales of the iPhone – one of the most expensive phones available today.

Tiffany & Company, (the world famous jewelry retailer) reported its earnings for the fiscal fourth quarter rose by 40 percent.

United States sales of Maserati sportscars from Italy have hit an all time high.

[11/12/08: The full newsletter is now archived for those who wish to read the whole thing.]

What Richard is explaining here essentially constitutes a series of negative feedbacks. That is, each bad thing is generally offset or countered by a good thing somewhere else (i.e., a large company goes bankrupt; bad, but then those underutilized assets get sold off to a new company that makes use of them, adds jobs, etc.). Or, mistakes can be learned from and individuals and businesses take such lessons to heart and that's a negative feedback. In the end, all the bad tends to work to producing good in individuals and businesses who are relatively free to act on their values; and with a little fortune, we end up OK, even thriving. We reach equilibrium and, one hopes, steady sustained growth and improvement.

Now, ask yourself a serious question: what could you have done differently to prevent this global financial crisis? What can you do right now to fix it? Nothing and nothing, right? It's not your fault, even if you did do some of the dumb things that contributed your 1 in 200 millionth part in it. And with such a small part in the problem, if any, it's not likely you can do anything to fix it.

Could it get worse? Sure; some people argue that The Great Depression was the essential contributing factor in the rise of Hitler and WWII (it was a global depression). But what can you do about that, either way? Likely not a damn thing.

And yet, how many of you stress about what's happened, how long it will go on, and what might happen next? And then, what does that stress do? Do you say, "man, I'm stressed; I should get away." Sometimes we have the introspective wisdom to do that, but then, at other times, the more the stress, the more we obsess over the news, the blogs, the discussion lists, the arguments, forwarding foreboding emails to our address book, the YouTube videos, and the list goes on. What have I just described? I've described a profoundly unhealthy and unnatural feedback loop: a positive feedback, where everything we do contributes to exacerbating the stress, not diminishing and minimizing it. Stress makes you more obsessive, the obsession makes you more stressed, and then it even cuases other things like poor sleep, excessive drinking, poor work performance, damaged relationships — all contributing together to up the stress level, perpetuating the cycle.

Yet, stress can also be healthy for us — profoundly so. Much of what we talk about here, like brief and intense resistance exercise and flexible, intermittent fasting is designed specifically to create stress — but of a sort we evolved over millions of years to handle, thereby benefiting us in the primal struggle for survival. In each case, our bodies respond with a mix of hormonal signals that benefit us, making us stronger and more viable, better able to cope the next time around. That's negative feedback, always seeking equilibrium on a higher plane than where we began.

…And then there's the looming election. Anyone stressing over that? So, what can you do about it? You can't influence the outcome, and as with the financial crisis, your contribution to the outcome may at best be about 1 in 100 million. Yet you fret; on and on. But, do you know that one candidate will leave us worse off and the other better off, or the reverse, or that we won't somehow be better off with either, or worse off? Or, that they aren't largely irrelevant altogether? Who really knows? And while the prospect of the outcome is certainly something that's difficult to ignore, why make it an obsession?

I'll make a bold prediction concerning Tuesday's election: we all end up with the same President on Wednesday morning, and it's not going to depend on who voted and who didn't, or on whom one group voted for as counter to whom the other group voted for. We're in the same boat, either way.

So, what can you do? You can try not to worry about those things you have no control over, at least not in the sense of trying to change or prevent it. Instead, take heed of warning signs here and there and decide for yourself now how you might alter your behavior. I'm talking about your habits, your lifestyle, your job, your family life — all things you exercise great control over — in such a way that you increasingly diminish the impact of bad events that you have no control over. Even the process of coming to the realization that you have no control to prevent upheavals, but that you have great control over the course of the rest of your life serves as a negative feedback to reduce the stress of future uncertainly. And, regardless of political and social outcomes and upheavals, you likely have a better than even chance of engineering your life going forward to lessen the impact of adverse circumstances you had no control to prevent (after all, did you not get to where you are now, likely in the face of some profound obstacles along the way?).

For example, perhaps this financial crisis has you in some degree of fear or trepidation about sustaining your livelihood, such as in the possibility of losing your job. Well, then begin thinking now about alternative course of action. What would you do? Give serious thought to a preemptive career or job change. It certainly can't hurt, and there's always the possibility that everything will be fine anyway, but that you'll find that you want to pursue other opportunities: anyway.

Alternatively, you can stress out and forward emails, write blogs, and engage in arguments and impassioned pleas over who people should vote for, all in a vain attempt to shore up your situation under circumstances you can't control.

You're focussing and obsessing over what you can't control, rather than on what you can control. This creates stress, the stress makes you obsess more, and the positive feedback is established. Rather, focus on what you can control; and as you focus accordingly, things come into better persecutive, and the negative feedback brings you back to an equilibrium of mental health.

If next Tuesday's election ultimately helps, hurts, or has no profound effect on your life, you will not have been able to do anything about that. Instead, live now to your fullest and take particular caution about getting caught up in doom and gloom over what you can't control.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Dave on November 1, 2008 at 20:26

    Your. Best. Post. Ever.

    If I could change one thing about any person for their benefit, it would be to make them impervious to stress. The psychological, and probably medical benefits are immeasurable.

  2. Chris - Zen to Fitness on November 2, 2008 at 04:12

    Awesome post on so many levels. Keep it up

  3. Kyle Bennett on December 29, 2009 at 14:02

    This can’t be repeated too often. Everyone from Kipling to Covey, and who knows how many others, have repeated it. Focus on what you have control over, keep your circle of concern within your circle of influence, etc. And ironically, its the only way to create any enduring expansion in your circle of influence, in the realm of what you have any measure of control over.

    It’s one of the top ten most important concepts in all of life, from health, to relationships, to business, to politics.

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