Lab Rats and the Rat Race

I’ve been with my current employer for eight years. In those eight years, I’ve served under six different managers. I’ve liked several, feared a few, but respected only one.

At this moment, in the midst of unwarranted upheaval in my current location, I find it difficult to respect any of my superiors. After years of “musical managers” the stress of being expected to perform exceptionally well in an unpredictable environment is becoming too much for me to handle. Not knowing who my boss is going to be tomorrow or next week and not knowing what is about to happen is simply unnerving. The panic attacks I thought I had conquered have returned with a vengeance, even on days when I do not work. In an economy where countless families are struggling to survive, it is drilled into those that have jobs that we should be grateful, grateful, GRATEFUL for our jobs. This makes a difficult situation at work that much harder – the chances of finding another job are slim. Therefore, you’re trapped. You need the job and the health insurance, but the stress is unbearable. At this point, you become a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations. Why am I saying you? I mean me. Myself. I am a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations.

This situation reminds me of a classic laboratory experiment with rats. The scientist takes two normal, healthy rats and places each in a separate cage. The first rat’s cage has two levers in it. One lever produces food, the other, an electric shock. The rat quickly learns which lever is which and avoids the shock-producing lever, while using the lever that produces food. In this predictable environment where he feels he has some control, he is happy, normal, and healthy. He socializes normally with other rats. He is emotionally well-adjusted.

The second rat’s cage also has two levers. But instead of each lever consistently producing the same outcome, they vary. This lever sometimes produces food, sometimes a nasty shock. And vice versa. In this completely unpredictable environment, the rat has no sense of control over what happens to him. He becomes a nervous wreck, exhibiting hostile or withdrawn behavior, overeating or not eating at all, becoming ill and even engaging in autistic rocking behaviors.

Scientists say this model can be applied to humans living in any unpredictable environment – from living in a war zone to having an alcoholic family member… Or a job where the management is constantly changing and what’s right today may get you yelled at tomorrow – not to mention dealing with customers who blame the person behind the counter for everything from the color of the carpet to their own epic blunders. In unpredictable environments, people get stressed. They feel anxious. They feel depressed. I feel stressed/anxious/depressed.

I find it particularly interesting about the aforementioned experiment that the physical health of the rats was affected by their environment and emotional state. Rat #1, who has a measure of control over his surroundings, is happy AND healthy. Rat #2, who has no idea if he’s getting zapped or fed today, easily gets ill, in addition to becoming a blubbering neurotic.

“Study after study shows that the more in control people feel, the less stress they feel and fewer negative sensations they experience.” – Dr. Richard Fried, PhD

Obviously, when one feels a lack of control and is stressed, the first thing to do is try to regain a sense of control in other areas of life. Some suggestions:

• Exercise. Regular physical activity is essential to work off stress hormones.

• Stress reduction techniques. Progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, journal therapy and the like can be helpful.

• Get professional help. Seeing a therapist or counselor to learn coping techniques.

I’ve tried all of the above. I walk vigorously for at least 30 minutes a day. I try to use deep breathing, especially when in the throes of a panic attack. I see a therapist on a regular basis. But these strategies take time to work. Not to mention, if a new difficulty arises while you’re still working on coping with the last one, you’re in trouble. And if you’re like me, having to be drugged to deal with work is out of the question. It just sounds completely outrageous and totally unfair.

Time does heal. Once away from work, it takes days to recover from the stress. But by then, it’s time to return to work. In a situation where people are treated as pawns in a corporate chess game, the stress of the rat race has a new dynamic – that unpredictable lever. Will it dispense a reward today? Or just another nasty shock?

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2 thoughts on “Lab Rats and the Rat Race

  1. eloquentlyury says:

    I’m sorry you have to go through that. Wonderfully written blog though. I was in that rat race for 18 years and it wasn’t easy. You feel as though at any moment, you’re going to crack. Working for the Eliz. Board of Ed was dealing with not only dealing with terrible behavior problems with the kids, it was the adults behavior that sometimes was worse to deal with! As they say, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Keep that pretty chin up, we’re with you!!

  2. eloquentlyury says:

    sorry about the mistakes…didn’t catch that.

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