Everyday on my way to work I arrive at a four way stop sign. No traffic light, just an intersection at a busy road with four stop signs.
I am always amazed at the unspoken rules that fluidly come into play. All cars stop, and the one perceived to have arrived first gets to go. Directly across, at 180 degrees, the other car also moves across the intersection. After they have passed, it is the turn of the cars at 90 degrees to cross. The sequence is repeated over and over again, and everyone seems to know when it is their turn. There is harmony and rhythm that binds those cars and drivers at that intersection. Cooperatively, everyone gets to where they need to go.
On occasion a driver lurches forward out of sequence. Invariably, a stranger in a stranger’s car beeps the horn in protest, perhaps a little angry and irritated at the breach of protocol. They cut in line!
When this happens you can almost feel the blood pressure going up, the stress hormone, cortisol, beginning to flow, and the hands of the injured drivers clenching their steering wheel just a little tighter. Someone has taken advantage of them, broken the rules, and they are getting mad. For that split second they feel as if a resource has been absconded with, duped, lulled, into waiting at a stop sign while someone else broke the decree.
Imagine if no one obeyed the rule, and anarchy descended on the intersection. Traffic jams, road block, road rage, accidents, and a strong chance that no one gets to where they have to be. This could happen, but part of our brain, that part responsible for some moral code, overrides the primitive impulses of survival of the fittest. In fact, our survival, even at a four way stop sign, profoundly depends on another person.
I share this example with you to illustrate how easily we can influence each other, reducing stress, or increasing stress depending on what we do. When the four way stop sign rule is followed, it harkens back to our inherent wish and need to trust each other. By following the shared belief that the first person at the stop sign gets to go, and that no one will be taken advantage of, in a small way we reduce the stress of another person.
This is the premise of how I am suggesting we approach stress: that it is not always my stress that gets in the way of my success, it is other people’s stress that gets in the way of my success. So what can I do to help relieve the stress of others so we can all be more successful?
As you go through your day, at home, at the office, at school, at the grocery store, you are surrounded by people who may be under stress. When you help someone you do several important brain things. First, by allocating some of your resources you are communicating that the person is valuable. We all want to feel valued by another human being, so when we help someone with their stress we are sending a message to their brain that gets translated, in essence, to a reduction of cortisol and likely an increase of a pro-social hormone called oxytocin. In fact, stress may be because we fear we will not be seen as valuable, and kicked out of the protective survival enhancing group.
Second, our altruism today, giving to someone even at our own expense, often binds that person to us. In the future they are more likely to give of themselves to us, reducing our stress and cortisol, and reminding us of our own value. What could be better than that?
Over the next few weeks I will be exploring our stress response, and how we can help each other be more successful. When we are all more successful we all benefit. And even though we stop at a four way sign, our cooperation can take us across and beyond any intersection and obstacle. In fact, perhaps the real progress gets made when we stop, look, and listen to the stress another person is experiencing and help them pass through the danger rather than just drive away. A lot of movement can happen at a four way stop sign.