Imagine living on the African plains, spending most of your day finding food to fill your daily calorie load. In addition, there are predators in the shadows, not far away; you have to always watch your back. Sounds like stressful life, doesn’t it?
In a way, we all know being stressed is bad for the health. Nevertheless, stress response is an evolutionary trait with benefits—exhibited by numerous members of the animal kingdom. Becoming stressed generates a series of physiological changes that prepare animals for the Fight-or-Flight behaviour. The level of stress hormone, corticosteroids rises and activates the body: the heart start racing, breathing is faster, and the muscles become tensed. So, for the 30 seconds that you find a lion chasing after you, stress is very helpful and essential to your survival.
In the modern jungle, however, stress has become dysfunctional. We humans are unable to turn it off. Unlike a lion, stressors such as mortgage payments do not go away after 30 seconds, but prolongs into months or years. After a while, the stress response become damaging. Stress shuts down body systems that are not immediately necessary. This includes immune system, digestive system, and reproductive system. Stress can also damage brain cells. This is happening in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In summary, stress can seriously hinder a person’s adaptiveness in the long term.
Understanding how stress works can help us figure out ways to combat and mitigate negative impacts on our health. Stanford University neurobiologist and renowned author Robert Sapolsky says, it’s all about our “perception of control.”
“With the same external reality, you are more likely to feel subjectively stressed, you are more vulnerable to stress-related disease, if you feel like you have no control over what is happening, and have no predictable information” such as what is coming, how long it will be, and how bad it will be.
You can explore more about stress in Dr. Sapolsky’s National Geographic Special, Killer Stress. Throughout the film, he weaves the grim realities of the impact of chronic stress with his wry observations about 21st century life.
So, why don’t Zebra get ulcers like we do?