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Why Zebras Are Less Stressed Than You Are

Why Zebras Are Less Stressed Than You Are

Yes zebras live with the permanent risk of being eaten alive, which you would think is more stressful than a busy commute and hectic job. But the stress response system of a zebras knows when to switch off while yours does not.

Fight or Flight?

Let’s briefly consider the life of a zebra. They like are social animals and hang out in herds. They have good eyesight and prefer low grasslands so they can spot lions and hyena, which are their main predators.

Their stress response system does exactly what ours evolved to do too hundreds of thousands of years ago when homo sapiens emerged on the plains of East Africa. When a predator is detected, hormones in the zebra’s brain are sent through the body that put the ‘fight or flight’ response into immediate action.

Hormones send the message that everything else is to be de-prioritised and all energy, boosted by the sudden release of adrenalin, is sent to the zebra’s muscles so it can run away as quickly as possible.

This is, essentially, what happens to us when we perceive a threat. The problem is, the nature of our threats has changed down the millennia.

It’s quite rare, for most of us, to face a physical threat that requires us to fight or run away. When it does happen, we’re very grateful that our stress response system kicked in and provided us with some adrenalin.

Most commonly, however, we perceive threats in things people say to or about us, what they write on social media, emails from our boss or clients, or from the bills we need to pay.

The common characteristic in the things that cause us stress is that they never go away. Our stress has become chronic.

Consider once again the zebra. His or her stress becomes extremely acute when they spot a lion or pack of hyenas. But, assuming they escape from the predator, their stress response system then shuts down. Their stress is definitely acute. Yes it reaches DEFCON THREE, but only in short bursts. But at other times, their stress response system is quiet - unlike yours and mine.

We can say that zebras are more likely to face dramatic, acute stress than the average human. But they are also likely to spend far less of their time under stress than we are.

The silent killer

There are many health consequences related to this. Zebras face the threat of being eaten by lions. But they do not face the threat of stress-related disease, which ranges from insomnia and depression, to diabetes, stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome to the clogging of your arteries, high blood pressure and, ultimately, sudden heart failure.

According to experts, such as Professor Robert Sapolsky, chronic stress increases the risk of these diseases because hormones that are released during the stress response tell the body to de-prioritise its normal functions to ensure its muscles are ready to spring into action.

This is why people commonly need to urinate just before an exam. In the face of a perceived threat, controlling one's bladder is less of a priority. Physical exertion also activates the stress response system, so this is also why marathon runners (think Paula Radlciffe) often need to go to the loo.

People who are chronically stressed, in effect, have a constant message going between brain and body informing the body to de-prioritise the regular function of its organs. Stress hormones constantly coursing through the body disrupt the regular function of its internal system. In the long term, this can lead to the diseases mentioned above, although the precise link between stress and the risk of disease is not known. It is possible to test the level of the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol, in your system. But no one can, yet, tell you at what level this makes a heart attack, for example, more likely.

As a result, stress remains a silent killer, which is poorly diagnosed both by doctors and by us as individuals. People suffering from acute stress may be aware of their condition, but many people live with a constant level of low-to-medium stress, about which they may be aware of very little.

I remember only fully realizing how stressful I found my job when I realized I had stayed up til 5am every Friday night for two months in a row. Being consciously aware of your own release valves (heavy drinking, insomnia, irritability etc) is an important step in monitoring one's own stress levels.

If you would like to learn more about stress and the effect it has on the body then by far the best book on the subject is "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", by Professor Robert Sapolsky, which inspired this post.

 

Image Copyright Igor, Fotalia 2015.

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018
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