Is Stress Really Killing Us?


Q: Is stress really killing us? And if it is, what can I do about it?


Robert M. Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, begins with a person awake all night, worrying. Who doesn’t occasionally have trouble sleeping because stress is somehow keeping our mind running?

Whereas the chief killers at the beginning of the twentieth century were tuberculosis, pneumonia, the flu, and childbirth, today, medical advances have ensured that those diseases (or natural processes like childbirth) are rarely fatal. So, what’s affecting us today? Sapolsky argues that our heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, Alzeheimers, and even cancer might be caused by stress.

We cannot change our biology, but there are certain things that we can control in our responses to stress. Below, I have outlined Sapolsky’s suggestions of how to better cope with stress and live a happier (and healthier!) life.

Surround yourself with friends. When studying animals that were subject to minor stressful events, those animals developed ulcers if left to handle the stress alone. However, if those animals had “friends” or companions, they did not develop ulcers. Bottom line: keep your friends around you during times of crisis.

If you can, attempt to prepare. If the stress is something that you can prepare for, it will give you a sense of control. So, if you are aware that you will encounter a stressful situation, preparing for it in any way can ultimately prevent your body from jumping into high gear.

Find a distraction. When your body remains in a high state of stress for prolonged periods, the damage to your heart, digestion, and brain can be significant. Therefore, find a hobby or something else that can take your mind off of the stress. Not only will you temporarily stop thinking about the stress, your body will stop exhibiting the stress response.

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