We have a tendency to do ourselves in.

by John McManamy


ROBERT SAPOKSKY has studied stress and behavior as both a neuroscientist specializing in the hippocampus and as a primatologist tracking baboons in the wild. In a 2007 interview posted on the Stanford University website, he posits that humans, apes, and monkeys are way too intelligent for their own good. "Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out,” he said.

Fish and birds and reptiles and mammals secrete the same stress hormones we do, but they don’t endanger their metabolisms the way people and primates do. Certain animals may be social, but they don’t have complex emotional lives. According to Dr Sapolsky: “It's not until you get to primates that you get things that look like depression."

In the 2004 edition to his best-seller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr Sapolsky points out that in dealing with the crisis at hand - such as being chased by a lion - the body in essence ceases work on its long-term building projects (such as making bone marrow, digesting food, or thinking about the future) in favor of stoking the heart and lungs, stimulating neural circuits, and delivering instant energy to the muscles.

Soon enough, with the resolution of the crisis, all systems reset to normal. Essentially, the body works to maintain a state of equilibrium, a process known as homeostasis. Paradoxically, it accomplishes this by allostasis. For instance, in anticipation of even routine physical activity, glucose levels will temporarily spike way above normal.

But continued exposure to stressful situations can bring on “allostatic load,” where overburdened systems fail to reset to normal. Starvation, for instance, will result in your body storing fat rather than burning it. This is one reason, incidentally, that virtually all diets fail.

You may think you’re battling against your own lack of will power. In reality, you are up against a much more powerful force of nature.

So now we have low self-esteem to gnash our teeth over, which is the very point Dr Sapolsky is making. Thanks to our state-of-the-art primate brains, we have turned ourselves into perpetual worrying machines, dealing with one manufactured emotional crisis after another. Literally, we are thinking ourselves into chronic stress.



You might refer to chronic stress as a sort of global body disease that rampages everywhere, striking at the weakest link. For instance, allostatic load may provoke our immune system into a state of perpetual high alert. One effect, according to Dr Sapolsky, is one of your guys getting shot in a friendly fire accident. The immune system mistakes part of you for something invasive, and “you’ve got yourself an autoimmune disease.”

On and on it goes, systems in crisis - hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and so on.

In addition, all manner of brain function is impaired. At the neural level, some of those glucocorticoids released into the blood by fight or flight bind to glucocorticoid receptors on neurons in the amygdala, hippocampus, PFC, and other brain regions. This sets off the release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Too much glutamate, though, can literally excite neurons to death, or substantially weaken them, making them sitting ducks for the next catastrophe.

It doesn’t stop there. Weakened neurons can literally drop out of circulation. If neurons fail to communicate in the hippocampus, for instance, the ability to lay down memories is severely compromised. Back in the lab, Dr Sapolsky has devoted three decades to studying exactly this sort of thing. Brain scans of victims of PTSD, for instance, reveal smaller hippocampal volumes than those without PTSD.

Now imagine just two of the things that can go wrong in the other two brain regions we have touched on in the previous article on stress - an amygdala sensitized to the point of sending false alarms that won’t shut off and a prefrontal cortex unable to send a convincing modulating signal back to the amygdala - and we have a human being with messed-up wiring, at a loss in how to negotiate even the most routine social situations. We’re back into Freud’s world now, not to mention Darwin’s. From their perspective, we’re failing to adapt to our environment. From how we view it, though, our environment has turned on us. Either way, we lose.




Meanwhile, on the savannah …

If you’re lucky enough to be a baboon, you only have to work three hours a day for your basic needs, and predators are not a major concern. As it turns out, even in paradise, we succeed in finding ways to make ourselves miserable. Baboons, with their extreme sexual dimorphism (the males are much larger than the females) and alpha dominance hierarchies, absolutely specialize in terrorizing each other, and they have plenty of free time to do it. Says Dr Sapolsky: “They're just like us. They're not getting done in by predators and famines, they're getting done in by each other."

Meanwhile, back at the office …

Suppose you must endure a job you hate, day after day, year after year. In 1967, researchers began tracking 18,000 male British civil servants over a ten-year period. A second study (begun in 1985 and still ongoing) is tracking 10,000 male and female British civil servants. The two studies are known as the Whitehall Studies.

The clear finding from both studies was that mortality rates turned out to be far higher for those in the lower echelons of the British civil service than the upper echelons, even after controlling for lifestyle and other factors. One would think that those in senior management would experience a lot more stress than those lower down. But think again. Those poor souls at the bottom have little or no control over their situation. They have no choice but to sit there and take it. Upper level employees, by contrast, have far more say in how they go about their day.

It’s not that the alphas necessarily get off scot-free. High-stakes competition brings on its own set of stressors. If you’re an alpha baboon, for instance, and your fiercest rival decides to take a nap next to you, let’s put it this way - you’re not going to get much sleep.



But who wants to be a beta? In a species that places a premium on strength and aggression, the jock is king. The lot of the beta is a lifetime of being bullied. The best they can hope for is some ameliorating social grooming. Sadly, they lack the option of joining an alternative social structure, where they can thrive outside of office hours. It’s not like they can wander off to another tree to play Dungeons and Dragons with the nerd baboons.

By contrast, humans have the resources to create their own social networks. By nature, we are social animals, and our ability to use this trait to our advantage is the single greatest contributing factor to our health, physical and mental.

The best support for this comes from the longest-running set of studies on a human population, the Grant Study, tracking young men from Harvard, and the Gleuck study (later incorporated into the Grant study), following disadvantaged young men from inner city Boston. Both studies began in the late 1930s and are still ongoing. One of the young men in the Grant Study was JFK.

The main take-away from the study was that those who developed adaptive responses to their social relations and who built meaningful personal connections lived longer and happier and healthier lives.

To freely interpret, these men learned to negotiate their challenging social situations with a minimum of stress and drama.

All of us deserve to be happy. For that to happen, how we deal with the inevitable stresses in our social environment is a major determining factor.

See also The Stress-Emotions Connection

July 10, 2016


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