Pretend you’re a zebra enjoying the hot African savannah. A lion is approaching. You shift into high gear and run for your life. That’s what stress was designed to do: get you out of immediate danger.
But what if you’re not a zebra. Week after week you’re worried about losing your job, or getting older, or you’ve been arguing a lot with a family member. Maybe you’re concerned about mounting bills, or you’re dealing with health issues, working too hard, or you just feel exhausted.
There is no lion, but the continual stress can take a serious toll. From stroke and heart attacks to pain, memory loss, ulcers, mental health issues, sex problems, brain damage and much more, our bodies will struggle.
How can purely psychological turmoil make us sick? Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University, and author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, says it’s simple: we’re not made for it.
For the vast majority of beasts on the planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, something that we either deal with or we’re killed. “When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses, but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically.”
“We humans…are smart enough to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads,” says Sapolsky. “How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?”
But there’s hope. Sapolsky discusses the science beyond several approaches to reducing stress:
- Exercise: Enhances mood and reduces stress so long as it’s something we want to do. Opt for aerobic exercise on a regular basis for sustained periods, say 20 or 30 minutes at a time for a few times a week, at least. But don’t overdo it; that can be stressful.
- Meditation: When done almost daily for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, meditation seems to be pretty good for our health. But Sapolsky says it’s not clear that good effects persist long after meditating, and science hasn’t shown one type to be better than the others.
- Getting more control and predictability: Sapolsky says that when it comes to having a sense of control, there’s a delicate balance that depends on the situation. For example, having too much information can be stressful. A perceived sense of control works better for mild stressors than for big issues.
- Social support: You’d think social support is always good. But science has shown that having a dominant person around or being in a bad relationship can be stress-inducing. And giving social support is important, too. “In a world of stressful lack of control, an amazing source of control we all have is the ability to make the world a better place, one act at a time.”
- Religion and spirituality: Sapolsky says the science is weak about whether believing in a particular religion or having a personal relationship with God makes us healthier. Yet regular attendance at religious services seems to predict a decreased mortality rate, and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. However, religious belief doesn’t predict much about cancer progression, cancer mortality rates, medical disability and speed of recovery from illness.
- Cognitive flexibility: We all have natural coping styles. Women, on average, tend toward emotion- or relationship-based styles, while men tend toward problem-solving approaches, Sapolsky notes. But the key is to be able to choose the coping style that is appropriate to the circumstances. Learning to switch to a different approach when our first few attempts aren’t working is often not only stress-reducing, but is often effective, he says.
- Just do it. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter what stress management technique we use, as long as it doesn’t hurt others, Sapolsky says. Take time out almost daily to do whatever you think might work. “If you manage that, change has become important enough to you that you’re already a lot of the way there – maybe not really 80 percent, but at least a great start.”
Sapolsky says we absolutely can learn to manage our stress. “…We are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold.”
Learn more: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sapolsky, Henry Holt and Company, 2004.