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:

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.

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