Stress: Portrait Of A Killer


It seldom happens when we go through a day without experiencing stress. We are especially familiar with these feelings when they build up after a long day at work or while studying for a difficult final exam. In our modern industrialized world, it is more difficult now than ever to avoid stress, and some experts say this is leading to many unforeseen health-related problems. In a society that values multi-tasking, an over consumption of commercial goods, and exponential increases in economic production, no wonder it always feels like our heads are spinning and no wonder life often seems so hectic and uncontrollable.

However, stress is a necessary component to the human experience. Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, who is featured in the National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait Of A Killer, explains how stress is an adaptive response of our nervous system. According to him, there are two main hormones involved in this stress response: epinephrine (also called “adrenaline”) and norepinephrine. Many recognize this biological process as the “fight or flight” response that takes place in our sympathetic nervous system. From an evolutionary perspective, this response was first adapted to increase an animal’s survival when confronted by an immediate danger. However, Sapolsky argues that humans tend to trigger this stress response psychologically, without any presence of a threatening stimulus. This “artificial” stress response is constantly being activated, which becomes severely taxing on our body’s resources, and later in life can result in some very undesirable outcomes.

All vertebrates have this “fight or flight” response and therefore experience stress. When Sapolsky was in his 20s he traveled to East Africa to study wild baboons. He found that the same area in the brain that correlates with human stress also correlates with baboon stress. Sapolsky then spent the next 30 years observing these baboon communities – their behavior, environment, and social structures. He determined the relation of these factors to stress through the use of blood samples and other physiological measures.

One of the key findings made during Sapolsky’s research was the effect of social hierarchy on stress levels. Dominant male baboons were shown to have much lower levels of stress than subordinate baboons. Sapolsky observed the bigger, dominant males often teasing the weaker ones, pushing them around and not letting them have a fair share of food or mating privileges. In fact, the baboons that were most submissive to the dominant males revealed brain activity similar to the kind found in clinically depressed humans.

Sapolsky’s findings with baboons echoed an important study done on human stress called the Whitehall Study. Researchers decided to record the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and mortality rates of British civil servants between the ages of 20-64. They found that individuals employed closest to the bottom of the business hierarchy (such as messengers or doorkeepers) had a mortality rate that nearly tripled the rate of administrators and CEOs. Since everyone in Britain receives the same quality healthcare this study made important implications into the role of social hierarchy on stress and its effect on the risk of heart disease.

So how does this hierarchical structure contribute to different levels of stress? Researchers theorize that this could be due to a lack of control. The less control we have over our actions the more we are likely to feel stressed out. The same is true for baboons as it is in humans. This idea will be revisited later once I go over some solutions to overcoming stress. Before that I will elaborate further on the health implications of this growing stress epidemic that the whole world is quickly falling victim to.

The influence of stress on our health

The first ever stress-related health disease that was discovered was a stomach ulcer. Stress and ulcers is still a common association made today. It used to be the case where doctors would have to advise their patients on ways to relax and minimize stress in order to avoid these ulcers. This practice was commonplace until it was discovered that ulcers could also be linked to a certain kind of bacteria infection. Since then doctors have begun to neglect the importance of stress in ulcers and thus have resorted to drug prescriptions as a proper treatment.

However recent research has begun to shed light on the real causality between stress, ulcers, and other health implications. As it turns out, extreme levels of stress can tire the body and weaken our immune system. When bacteria or a virus enters the body under these very stressful conditions the body may not have the resources to take care of itself effectively. Thus those of us who are most stressed are likely to get sick more often.

A recent discovery in the field of biology has linked higher stress levels with shorter telomere lives (telomeres are a part of DNA that affects the shortening of our cell’s lifespan and its ability to reproduce new cells). In addition, shorter telomeres have been linked with higher risks of heart disease and cancer. This relates back to the findings in the Whitehall Study that showed an increase in cardiovascular disease in individuals who experienced more stress.

Dr. Carol Shively from Wake Forest University found that stress also changes the way fat is distributed throughout the body. Stress seems to allocate fatty resources to areas of our body they are not needed. Shively theorizes that the stress caused by our industrialized world may also play a contributing role in the global obesity epidemic.

The influence of stress on our psychology

One of the most obvious results of stress is how it affects our mental wellbeing and life satisfaction. Stress has been shown to work in contrast with the dopamine receptors in the brain, which are associated with pleasure, and because of this high ranking monkeys, when compared to ones further down the social ladder, have shown to have greater activity in these areas of the brain.

But there is more; stress has also been linked with poorer learning abilities. Researchers have found that the neural networks in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, reveal much less receptor binding under conditions of stress than without. Not only does studying for an exam all night cause more stress but it may also have implications for how well we are absorbing the material.

So whether it is happiness or our cognitive abilities, stress is a major danger to our mental health. No one enjoys being stressed out. But when we begin to factor in how stress may affect our own ability to work and be productive, then this brings into question whether Type-A personalities, those who are workaholics and always multi-tasking, are really benefiting by their work tendencies or if they are only causing more harm onto themselves (and perhaps even the company or business they work for).

Solutions for better managing stress

While reading this you have probably recognized areas of your own life where you could better learn to manage stress. Maybe it is at the workplace, a relationship with a loved one, or dealing with an obnoxious roommate. A big determinant for what you should do to ease stress is to identify what exactly is causing it.

If the work of neurobiologist Sapolsky and the Whitehall Study are correct in their assertions, then a big determinant of most stress is lack of control. One solution proposed in “Stress: Portrait Of A Killer,” is to find areas of your life where you can exercise control. For example, an employee can put together a company softball team and be the manager of that. But we don’t necessarily have to exercise control over others.

Why not also pursue creative interests like music, dance, or writing? By focusing more on our own personal endeavors we create a medium to channel our will to control, and even use this focused energy to derive a sense of achievement. I believe that if we give ourselves the time to exercise control in certain areas of life, then we have less of a desire to control things that we can only have limited authority in, like situations at work. But of course, if a job is so stressful to the point where you really can’t stand it, then it may be appropriate to just quit and find a new one.

Sometimes a situation is very stressful but you do not have a pliable option to walk away from it. Some examples of this may include the hardships of being a mother or the stress from coming down with a terminal illness. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a biology research at the University of California, suggests that meeting and interacting with similarly situated individuals is one of the best ways to manage stress in a situation like this. This means mothers forming organizations for mothers, in order to talk about mother things, and the same for any other group of individuals who need an outlet to express their interests and concerns. By doing this Blackburn argues that stress gets minimized and becomes much more manageable.

The last solution I wish to mention is something that can help out anyone. This deals with acting compassionately towards others. Studies have shown that caring and providing for the needs of others promotes greater longevity and strengthened telomeres, which is good for fighting the risks of heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. By doing nice things for others we also feel good about ourselves.

It is evident that stress is indeed something that needs to be managed, and these are all effective and useful ways for minimizing stress and improving our life conditions. By utilizing these methods we can still live in our industrialized world without having to bear with copious amounts of stress. In the end we have no choice but to adapt to our new modern world or we will certainly suffer the consequences. It is therefore worth our time and effort to better manage and cope with this deadly thing known as stress.

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