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Dave Galloway

Distress signals others to help.

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Distress behaviour is a signal for help

Why would anyone like me more if they think I’m stressed? I certainly don’t have big puppy dog eyes. Recent research suggests that evolutionarily, signalling distress to others would be an adaptive trait. But before we look at that, let’s understand a few aspects of human behaviour and stress. Humans and other species, when stressed, show typical behaviours. Scratching, for example (aka self-grooming). It’s referred to as displacement behaviour because of the energy it is displacing. Rats have regular stress behaviours which allow us to learn about stress and behaviour. Wringing one’s hands is another example. The sources of this “displacement” behaviour are also interesting. 

The stress of being caught in the middle 

One aspect of stress behaviours is that they are thought to arise from being frustrated by a situation that could be conflictual and affiliative at the same time. That’s the scientific wording for “maybe having a fight with your partner”. It sounds like a moment for defining self. I have a choice to be affiliative, i.e. submissive, or to define self and maybe have a conflict. Sound familiar? The study suggests that displaying distress is useful. Why? It invokes more like-ability! 

Distress is a sign of weakness. The weak make friends 

Remember, we are thinking about evolution. What would be the value of developing signals that showed one’s stress and weakened state? If you want to be the alpha-one, you need to look strong! Well, if you are living with extended family, like early humans and other social species did, then stress behaviours communicate you are not a threat and that you could use some help. Others, knowing that the group does better when its members are less stressed, would benefit in helping you. There is also research on primates supporting the idea that the stressed individual will reciprocate helping behaviour in the future. 

Reading distress improves with social network size

Another interesting finding suggests that the larger one’s social network, the better one is at reading stress signals. This makes complete sense as well. As one gets older, they meet more individuals, in more situations, thus building up the experience of understanding stressful behaviours. Importantly, noticing these behaviours is part of our wiring and is another example (see the previous post) of our embedded emotional sensitivity to others. 

Distress is one of the “top four” social signals

Dr. Kerr has proposed that humans are very sensitive to four social cues. These are attention, approval, distress and expectation. This research supports his idea. We exhibit distress and get attention. If it makes us more likeable, then we are going to get more approval and attention. So once again, our biology is automatically running more of our behaviour than we might realize in the moment. 

Signal your distress. Make new friends! 

In relationships, not hiding distress, but communicating it was the solution mother nature came up with. This must have an adaptive function, which it does: the stressed individual gets help and the group does better. Notice that distress signals to not blame anyone. They merely signal one’s distress. One aspect of being more differentiated is being able to share things that are important to oneself, like a situation that is creating stress. This aspect of being more differentiated fosters fewer secrets, leverages resources of the group, and helps lower the system’s level of stress, without blaming or making demands on others. For our non-verbal social ancestors, this “vulnerability” of simply communicating “I’m distressed” was useful. I’m glad we have this trait as well.

Dave Galloway 

This post was inspired by this research  Jamie Whitehouse, Evolution and Human Behavior, 

Find Michael Kerr’s book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families here:  see p. 5 for primary social cues.

Read more about Bowen Theory here:

I feel your pain. Literally.

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“I feel your pain” is rooted in biology

Seeing an individual in emotional pain can activate our own emotional pain circuits. This provides an interesting link to what Dr. Bowen proposed as the togetherness force. We experience this when we recognize that someone else wants us to feel, think, or act in a certain way. It’s the force to get individuals to be oriented to “for others”. Bowen wrote this about the togetherness force. It is: “assigning positive values to thinking about the other before self, being for the other, sacrificing for others, considering others, feeling responsible for the comfort and well-being of others, and showing love and devotion and compassion for others. The togetherness force assumes responsibility for the happiness, comfort, and well-being of others.” (p. 218)

Individuals experience the togetherness force subjectively, and knowingly or not, frequently. We experience it as a social cue while we are interacting with others. Dr. Kerr has talked about “the primary social cues that mediate interactions between people are sensitivities to approval, attention, expectations, and distress.” (pp. 5)

Rats understand “I feel your pain”

Recent research describes how this can be objectively observed in our biology. A recent research study has shown that rats literally feel another rat’s pain. If one rat observes another rat in pain, the observing rat has mirror neurons that selectively activate the observing rat’s brain pain circuits. These are the same pain circuits that activate normal pain in a rat. Nature is great at reusing what already works.

I act on your pain as well.

Not only do the pain circuits activate, but other circuits activate, which start the behaviours that automatically follow a pain experience. Behaviours like freezing and orienting to the source of pain. Pretty efficient if you want to live long and prosper as a rat! The researchers could even isolate observing pain specific responses versus observing fear (or what humans call fear).

I do feel your pain: it’s contagious.

This all happens in a brain region that all mammals have in common (the ACC). So, sorry, but this “ratty” behaviour is part of us. Unless you are a sociopath with an impaired ACC. So, for normal humans, this is an obvious example of how we can automatically react, non-consciously, to what’s going on with another person. It makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are a social species that traditionally lived in smaller groups, like an extended family. So, if I see you in pain, I should automatically react so I can deal with that source of pain.

Contagious feelings or empathy?

The other interesting idea here is that this kind of response may have led to the development of empathy. The automatic response to another in pain is not empathy, it’ is contagious behaviour. Empathy requires thinking because empathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings. It is much easier to understand another’s pain if you are literally feeling it. So feel first, understand second.

You feel me?

Bowen theory posits that our emotional state is so influenced by others that we exist in an emotional system versus a group of individuals. The togetherness force is that “force” that works for us to be aware of, and automatically respond to, emotions in others. This automaticity of the emotional reactions and feedback of individuals creates an emotional system.

So next time you wince at someone’s pain, remember your rat ancestors. And then work to be more mindful in the moment. As you’ll read in the next blog post, our biology orients us to help others we see in distress. This biology links us to those important to us and is more established than one might imagine! Even more reason to be working on defining self.

Dave Galloway

You can find Dr. Bowen’s book of collected papers: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice here: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

Fin Michael Kerr’s book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families here: Bowen Theory’s Secrets
Read more about Bowen Theory here:
You can find the Open Access rat study here: Emotional Mirror Neurons in Rats  Current Biology – Emotional Mirror Neurons in the Rat’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex by Maria Carrillo et al.