Picking the battles with stress

A leading neuroendocrinologist, explains stress in this lively and entertaining, yet highly informative book.

Makliya Mamat  /  March 9, 2023

Thanks to revolutionary advances in medicine and public health, our patterns of disease have changed. 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).

The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.

Robert Morris Sapolsky is one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, studying stress in primates (including humans). In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, Spolsky discusses the role of the hormones and brain in the stress reaction, the systems that are activated and suppressed, and how the rest of the body is affected by these changes.

How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases, and what does that have to do with our personalities? How can purely psychological turmoil make us sick?

What might stress have to do with our vulnerability to depression, the speed at which we age, or how well our memories work? What do our patterns of stress-related diseases have to do with where we stand on the rungs of society’s ladder? Finally, how can we increase the effectiveness with which we cope with the stressful world that surrounds us?

For a specialist, this degree of detail about stress would not be sufficient, but if it were, the work would be tedious for a general reader. The leaders who are in the fast lane or who are upwardly mobile will never have the patience to consider the finer points of neuroendocrine interactions. They want the fundamental information given authoritatively, and Sapolsky is a skilled craftsman at conveying information in a straightforward manner.

Sometimes, coping with stress consists of blowing down walls. But sometimes it consists of being a blade of grass, buffeted and bent by the wind but still standing when the wind is long gone…Once we are actually sick with the illness, the fantasy of which keeps us anxiously awake at two in the morning, the things that will save us have little to do with the content of this book.

Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are strong, possibly liberating forces that can be used internally. Few of the anxieties and concerns that plague our existence, as Sapolsky observes, are genuine in the sense that the zebra or lion would comprehend. In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have created these psychological stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them dominate our lives.

Possessed of lively intelligence, wide-ranging curiosity, and love of science, Sapolsky’s science and way of communicating make it interesting and understandable for non-scientists. Reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers will help everyone understand how the body and mind function as well as why some people are more susceptible than others to illnesses brought on by stress.

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