A lot of people are talking about stress these days! And November is a busy month for stress awareness – there’s National Stress Awareness Day and International Stress Awareness Week – helping to give focus to stress management and support for campaigns against the stigma associated with stress and mental health issues. But how much do we really know about stress, what it is and where it comes from?

A false start!

The title of this article is misleading, because our prehistoric ancestors did not actually suffer from caveman stress, mainly because they relied heavily on an instinct called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Still in operation today, it is a highly sophisticated survival mechanism, triggered when the hypothalamus sends a message to the adrenal gland. This heightens the senses giving the body extra strength and stamina – the heart pumps faster to send more blood to arms and legs, the eyes dilate for better vision and non-essential functions are temporarily turned off, such as digestion and the immune system, whilst excess waste is removed to aid speed and agility!

Although our genetic makeup has changed very little since our caveman days, our physical environment has changed beyond all recognition. Unfortunately our stress response system has not evolved along with the demands of the modern world. Unlike our caveman ancestors, we can’t resolve a stressful work situation by fighting or fleeing from a prehistoric predator.

The very mechanism that was life-preserving thousands of years ago now actually works against us in the modern workplace. The majority of fight or flight responses are not life threatening and so create a series of false alarms. An abundance of false alarms puts the human body under a constant source of strain by producing excessive cortisol and adrenalin. Historically, after a burst of fight or flight energy, the body was rewarded with the release of endorphins and dopamine to restore balance and neutralise the negative effects of stress, but the false alarms prevent this from happening. This in turn, can lead to a variety of stress-related disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure, immune system disorder, digestion problems, migranes and insomnia.

So how can you work with, rather than against, your caveman body and mind to combat caveman stress?

Here are four basic, but practical suggestions that can make a real difference, but are frequently being overlooked in our agitated, fast-paced and volatile worlds:

1  Physical activity

Preferably taken in short bursts periodically through the day eg running up and down flights of stairs between meetings or doing 60 seconds of star jumps by your desk – this can elevate the heart rate enough to release happy hormones and help counteract the effects of stress.

2  Good nutrition

Eating small, but regular balanced meals can keep blood glucose levels balanced and avoid the release of cortisol, which can cause cravings for high fat and high sugar foods, which put the body under more stress.

3  Happiness

Making time for happiness and laughter can not only aid the release of happy hormones, but tone muscles and boost circulation, counteracting the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ response.

4  Rest

Stress is a cumulative condition, so breaking the cycle of stress, through rest and rejuvenation is not just a luxury, but a necessity.


Most stresses in modern workplaces come from over-commitment rather than physical dangers, causing a mismatch between what is desired and what can be had. Unfortunately, our bodies are still prehistorically programmed and only have one stress response to all sources of stress, which can easily upset the delicate balance of our dynamic equilibrium. Until we evolve alternative instincts, being aware of our biological limitations can certainly help lessen the longer term and more serious impacts of coping with stressful situations.

If you would like to find out more about how to handle workplace stress, download my FREE Small Business Guide on Managing Stress at Work – it contains links to lots more useful resources and toolkits


Note: This blog was originally published in January 2016, but has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in October 2022.


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