Sapolsky's Zen Zebras: The Dangers of the Chronically Active Stress Response

By: David Lee Sexton, Jr. & Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Stress
Pixabay[Stress by geralt, 2017, CC0]

What is the Stress Response?

There is research supporting a relationship between the presence of chronic psychological stress and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and resulting death (Verkuil, Brosschot, Gebhardt, and Thayer, 2010).

…Stressed yet?

Every day, stressors trigger the release of stress hormones that execute physiological changes within the body; the result is the “fight or flight” response, which prepares one to fight or flee from an impending danger. While useful for early humans who would have needed the hormonal boosts to survive, modern day humans now have a tendency to activate the stress response when dealing with more mundane, less dangerous stressors (“Understanding the Stress Response”, 2016).

How Does This Impact Health?

Researchers have not only examined the immediate physiological changes associated with the stress response, but also the effects of chronic stress. The stress response is meant to provide an individual with a brief hormonal change conducive to surviving a brief, temporary threat. Thus, chronic activation of the stress response can result in several negative health outcomes, including: high blood pressure; increased risk of anxiety, depression, and substance-abuse due to chemical changes in the brain; and increased risk of obesity, through increased proclivity to overeat or decreased ability to sleep and initiative to exercise (“Understanding the Stress Response”, 2016).

So, What’s The Deal With Zebras?

Zebra
Pixabay[Zebra by Alexas_Fotos on March 4, 2016, CC0]
Robert Sapolsky (1998) provides an engaging, comprehensive, and insightful overview of stress-related disease in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. Sapolsky insightfully points out that infectious disease is no longer the issue it once was in many parts of the world; instead, humankind is becoming more susceptible to diseases related to chronic stress and increased life expectancy, such as cardiovascular disease related to poor diet. He goes on to say:

 

“Our current patterns of disease would be unrecognizable to our great-grandparents or, for that matter, to most mammals. Put succinctly, we get different diseases and are likely to die in different ways from most of our ancestors (or from most humans currently living in the less privileged areas of this planet). Our nights are filled with worries about a different class of diseases; we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart.” (Sapolsky, 1998, pp. 2)

Throughout the rest of his book, Sapolsky examines the mechanisms of stress, its relation to disease, and coping strategies that can lessen the toll stress-related disease takes on people with varying individual differences. He maintains that, while much of the information presented within may be alarming, there is hope and we can fight back against the ravages of stress. So, take a deep breath and channel your inner-zebra.

References

Sapolsky, R. M. (1998). Why zebra’s don’t get ulcers: An updated guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. (N. P.): W. H. Freeman and Co.

Understanding the stress response: Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health. (2016, March 18). Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Verkuil, B., Brosschot, J. F., Gebhardt, W. A., & Thayer, J. F. (2010). When worries make you sick: A review of preservative cognition, the default stress response, and somatic health. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 1(1), 87-118. doi: 10.5127/jep.009110

This blog was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT and David Lee Sexton, Jr, members of the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

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