In the treeless grassland of Eastern Africa, a herd of zebras enjoy the noonday sun while catching an occasional bite to eat. Suddenly, a lion sprints toward them in search of a fresh supply of meat. As the herd scrambles to escape the predator, each beast experiences the “stress response” as their bodies:
- Mobilize energy (glucose) in their bloodstreams to provide fuel for their muscles
- Elevate their heart rates, blood pressure, and breathing to expedite delivery of fuel and oxygen to their cells
- Halt long-term “building projects” – e.g., growth, tissue repair, reproduction
- Boost immunity and blunt pain response
- Sharpen senses and improve memory
These innate biological mechanisms share a common goal: Keep the beast alive during a (hopefully) relatively short time frame. Minutes later – once the threat has passed – the survivors regroup at a safe distance. With their stress response abated, they’re free to skip along the grassland, wag their tails, and grab a bite to eat.
All of the same mechanisms activate when human beings are subject to an acute crisis (e.g., running from a saber-toothed tiger) or chronic physical challenge (e.g., going on long excursions to forage for food). Fortunately, most of us avoid these stressors in the modern world. Yet we have another set of stressors up our sleeves. We have the capacity to put our bodies in an uproar by the thoughts we think. That kind of stress can hang around for hours, days, or months on end, causing great damage to very bodies that our stress responses were designed to protect.
In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr. Robert Sapolsky provides a detailed account of normal functioning of many of our physiological systems and processes. He then recounts the deleterious impact of too much stress, including:
- Hypertension, causing arteries to stiffen and heart muscles to thicken
- Excess circulating fatty acids and glucose in the bloodstream which lowers HDL (good cholesterol), elevates LDL (bad cholesterol), promotes insulin resistance, and increases fat deposits around the abdomen
- Disruption of normal digestive function
- Bone disintegration due to reduced calcium supply and inhibitory effects on cell division
- Suppression of the immune system during prolonged stress response activation to conserve energy and avoid “friendly fire accidents” (i.e., shooting the body’s own tissue versus an invader)
- Memory decline as neural networks get disconnected and new ones fail to thrive
- Sleep deprivation due to insomnia and decline in overall sleep quality
Stress pundits offer the following coping strategies to lessen the impact of stress: (i) Differentiate threatening from neutral interactions – i.e., don’t make mountains out of mole hills; (ii) Exert some control over social conflicts – even if it simply means choosing one’s attitude toward the stressor; (iii) Displace frustration – or as Duke Ellington would say: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues”; and, (iv) Make social connections. Dr. Sapolsky’s preferred stress-reducers include:
- Cognitive Flexibility: In the split seconds between racing heartbeats, have the presence of mind to get centered and choose an appropriate course of action. Eighty percent of stress reduction happens with the first 20% of effort. Don’t wait to dream up the perfect response. Just do it… and be prepared to adjust as needed.
- Exercise: It decreases cardiovascular risk while releasing endorphins that make you feel good… so long as the activity is something you want to do!
- Meditation: It calms the mind and body while lowering levels of the glucocorticoid hormone that wreaks havoc when active too long.
- Social Support: Find support from the right people at the right time.
- Daily Practice: Do some form of stress management daily. Cultivate an optimistic attitude. Control what you can and let go of the rest.