Killer stress

This article from Wired describes the work of Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress. It gives a good overview of the causes and costs of stress, some suggestions for how to cope, and fascinating news about work toward a vaccine against stress.

Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition describes how the body reacts to stress. In essence, the stress response is a dramatic shift from long-term functions (building bone, reproducing, general maintenance, etc.) in favor of short-term needs like running or fighting. In a zebra, the stress response kicks in when needed—for example, when a predator appears. If the zebra escapes being killed by the lion, it’s done being stressed, and its body can get back to maintenance and upkeep. The problems in humans (and other primates) arise when a chronic state of stress sets in. Zebras don’t get ulcers because they don’t like awake at night worrying fruitlessly about whether they said the right thing to the boss, or if they’re going to be able to make the mortgage payment this month.

The Wired article describes how social status affects stress; low-status baboons first alerted Sapolsky to the unfortunate effects of being low on the social ladder. Further studies in humans across a variety of fields have confirmed the effects. The presence or absence of control appears to be crucial to the way status mediates stress: if you have more control (which is typically associated with higher status), a demanding workload is easier to cope with than a dead-end job where you have little control.

The article suggests some things that you can do to help relieve stress (surprisingly, exercise is listed as being good for you only if you enjoy it overall—if you’re forcing yourself and gritting your teeth to get through it, maybe you should just stay home). It also describes some fascinating work on a vaccine for stress. It uses a reconfigured version of the herpes virus; all the harmful genes have been removed and replaced by various neuroprotective genes. This vaccine has been found to limit cell damage in rodents who have undergone a massive release of glucocorticoids (stress hormones). I was very impressed by this; it’s still nowhere near ready for humans, but it’s amazing to me that it could be done at all.

I really hope this work pans out in the long run and provides a stress vaccine for humans. I’d be tempted to say why bother doing all that when people can just exercise, meditate, or try to find other ways to control their stress. However, I know from personal experience that it can be extremely hard to do that. Sometimes it feels like my body has a mind of its own when it comes to stressing out, even over relatively trivial things. The reason it can be hard to combat stress is that the stress response operates on a kind of positive feedback loop. Basically, once your body and mind consistently get the idea that life is dangerous and that fear or caution is appropriate, it’s hard to persuade them otherwise. If you’re chronically stressed, you’re more sensitive to the effects of future stressors, and stresses that happen early in life can cast a very long shadow. The saddest part of the whole thing was probably this:

A recent study found that individuals abused by their parents during early childhood showed epigenetic changes to their DNA, which altered how their genes were read. The most prominent changes involved genes encoding glucocorticoid receptors, which led to a magnified stress response. The abuse might be temporary, but the damage is permanent, a wound that never heals.

It would be a wonderful world if children were never exposed to treatment or conditions that had the potential to hurt them for the rest of their lives, but that’s not possible. I hope that all the various stress-combatting activities can help even those with such a magnified stress response, but still, I wish Sapolsky and his colleagues success in their work on a human anti-stress vaccine.

1 Comment

  1. I saw a Nova special on epigenetics and they talked about a study where a guy looked at all the birth and death records of a remote part of Sweden throughout years of heavy droughts and famines. He found patterns that suggested to him that people who had experienced severe food shortages would pass on biological warnings through their bodies to their kids and grandkids. Later, there were other studies…including one that looked at New York moms who had survived the 9/11 attacks when they were pregnant. Their kids had stress chemicals in their saliva even though they had never experienced the attacks. Anyway, I have many thoughts and feelings about these data. I get the sense that we are aware of only a small fraction of the ways in which we receive signals from others and from the world around us. We most certainly know more in our whole bodies than we know in the intellectual partition of our minds. Yet another reason to support, love, and listen to our bodies, with all the wisdom they possess.

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