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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 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001  Jamie Whitehouse, Evolution and Human Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001 

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

Read more about Bowen Theory here: https://livingsystems.ca/bowen-theory/