The Rise in Stress-related Physical and Mental Health Problems in the 21st Century: A conflict between biology and culture?

Tom Meyers
3 min readMay 26, 2024

In our fast-changing world, stress has become a ubiquitous aspect of daily life. But why has stress, a general adaptive response meant to protect us, turned into a stressor that seems to harm us more than it helps? Does the answer lie in a conflict between biology and culture, or in other words, the concepts described in evolutionary medicine as evolutionary and developmental mismatches? Let’s take a look at these mismatch theories and see if they can shed light on the bigger picture.

Evolutionary Mismatch: A Legacy of Our Past

Evolutionary mismatch refers to the idea that the environment in which humans evolved differs vastly from the one we live in today. Our ancestors adapted to a world where immediate physical threats, food scarcity, and survival in the wild were the norm. The general adaptation response, involving the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — more commonly known as the stress response and characterised by the “fight or flight” mechanism — evolved to handle these acute, short-term threats effectively.

In the modern world, however, we face predominantly psychosocial stressors such as work pressure, financial concerns, and rapidly changing technological advancements that affect every aspect of our lives. These stressors are not typically life-threatening but are persistent, leading to prolonged activation of the general adaptation response. Our bodies, still wired for ancient dangers, respond to these modern stressors with the same neurohormonal and physical responses as they would to a predator attack, as there hasn’t been enough time for an evolutionary more apt adaptation to occur. This conflict between biology and culture, known as an evolutionary mismatch, may be one of the reasons for the rise in physical health problems today, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as mental health problems such as chronic stress, anxiety, and depression.

Developmental Mismatch: The Impact of Modern Lifestyles

Developmental mismatch, on the other hand, refers to the discrepancies that occur during an individual’s growth and development due to the environment they are exposed to at various stages. A mismatch because experiences for which we create protective or defence mechanisms during critical periods of development are different than the conditions/ experiences encountered later in life. These developmental mismatches can disrupt normal physiological and psychological development, leading to long-term health issues, including obesity, metabolic disorders, cognitive impairment and behavioural disorders.

The Interplay of Evolutionary and Developmental Mismatches

Does the interplay between evolutionary and developmental mismatches compound the problem of stress in modern society? Our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to respond to stress in ways that are no longer appropriate for most contemporary challenges. At the same time, developmental mismatches exacerbate our vulnerability to stress by disrupting healthy growth and development. This interplay may indeed explain the rise in stress-related physical and mental health problems and why traditional treatment solutions often fall short, as they fail to address the underlying evolutionary and developmental causes.

To be continued…

Tom Meyers is an osteopath (D.O. OSD, MSc. Ost), body-centred stress coach, and founder and instructor of The Reaset Approach, a therapeutic methodology and treatment modality designed to help individuals adapt, flourish, and thrive in the 21st century. Through workshops and writings, Tom aims to inform and revolutionise the field of manual therapy and empower therapists with the tools and knowledge to better serve their patients.

--

--

Tom Meyers

Tom Meyers is an osteopath M.Sc. D.0., Founder the Reaset Approach, Author Futurize Yourself & The Futures Effect