War is one of the greatest stresses anyone could ever encounter yet it also often leads to deep human friendships and incredible acts of heroism and sacrifice for one other. In my research with returning veterans, I have often heard them speak of the tight bond that occurs between servicemembers on the battlefield — one of the most stressful situations that exists. Countless soldiers have perished running into a line of fire to save an injured brother-in-arms. Some believe that it these experiences of profound human bonding that, despite the acute anguishes of war, makes some veterans long to return to war.
If stress leads to bonding, why then do we sometimes experience stress as making us cranky? The cause may be explained by a difference between acute and chronic stress. We know from research by Robert Sapolsky that acute stress prepares the body for resistance (physiological readiness, increased immune response, and heightened awareness) but that chronic stress slowly beats down the body. It may be that “acute” stress, i.e. a one-time stressful experience may lead to social bonding, as shown in the study, but that “chronic” stress, i.e. repeated exposure to stress over a long period, might wear us out. More research is needed to thoroughly examine the impact of chronic stress on social behavior.
Acute stress may help remind us of a fundamental truth: our common humanity. Understanding our shared vulnerability — life makes no promises — may be frightening, but it can inspire kindness, connection, and desire to stand together and support each other. Acute stress, as unpleasant as it may be, may also be an opportunity to experience the most beautiful aspects of life: social connection and love.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.