Why Humans Are Addicted to Stress—and How to Overcome It
Americans are not known for their ability to balance work and life. We are more known for our nonstop “business hours” and cultivating environments alive with the strain of anxiety. While we like to look to Europe for work/life balance inspiration, it seems that we could overcome our tendency toward stress by listening to neuroscientist and primatologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky. Dr. Sapolsky has spent the last 30 years specializing in the universal human ailment of stress. Surprisingly, his main research subjects are the wild baboons of Kenya. Even more surprisingly, it turns out we really aren’t much different than those baboons. Except for one crucial difference: We stress more, and for more reasons. Read on to understand why humans are so addicted to stress, and to find out how we can overcome this particular ailment.
In 2004, Dr. Sapolsky published a very well-received book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In his book, Dr. Sapolsky used zebras as a point of comparison to show how differently humans internalize stress compared with other primates. Dr. Sapolsky defines stress as “anything in the external world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance.” In his book, Dr. Sapolsky explains homeostatic balance as follows: “Let’s say you’re a zebra, and a lion has leaped out, ripped your stomach out. … This counts as being out of homeostatic balance.” While this is a drastic case of imbalance, after “three minutes of screaming terror,” the zebra reclaims its sense of balance. This is because it is either dead or, having escaped the lion, roaming the savanna feeling as safe as it had never encountered the predator.
Humans are not able to recalibrate our homeostatic balance as easily. Dr. Sapolsky attributes this to the fact that “humans, unlike primates, can get stressed simply with thought, turning on the same stress response as does the zebra.” So we don’t have to be in immediate danger to be stressed; we can just think we are or think about it, and we endure the same life or death stress of a zebra.
When we’re running late, too close to a deadline for comfort, in a disagreement with a friend, or doing anything remotely stressful—which, let’s face it, is most of the time—our stress response is turned on chronically. Dr. Sapolsky says this is why we get sick. In dire situations, chronic stress can lead to several types of disease, sexual dysfunction, and neurological dysfunction. In children, chronic stress can stunt the growth of necessary hormones.
If psychological stress is chronically turned on for non–life-threating reasons, such as worrying about money or trying to please your boss, “you increase risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure,” Dr. Sapolsky confirms. He also states that stress can greatly impact the digestive system. But perhaps most jarring is the fact that “if you’re chronically stressed, all sorts of aspect of brain function are impaired including, as an extreme, making it harder for some neurons to survive neurological insults.” In layman’s terms, this kind of prolonged stress leads to impaired memory and ability to function.
Don’t worry, we’re not an entirely damned species. According to Dr. Sapolsky, what you need to prevent stress is an outlet, a hobby, or a friend to vent to. Dr. Sapolsky writes, “In short, you are more likely to get a stress response—more likely to subjectively feel stressed, more likely to get a stress-related disease—if you feel like you have no outlets for what’s going on, no control, no predictability, you interpret things as getting worse if you have nobody’s shoulder to cry on.”
So what’s the takeaway? Enjoy time with your friends. Don’t stress about adult worries like rent and job performance all of the time. The best way to ensure that stress doesn’t eat away you long-term health is to have fun with your friends.
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