"Killer Stress"

National Geographic

My name is Amanda, and I am a workaholic.

-- a recovering workaholic, that is.

I used to live and breathe work; when I wasn't physically at the office, I was there in my mind -- wondering if the email I sent struck the right tone, strategizing how to get through the next day's to-do list. The smallest annoyance could send me into a fury. (I hear I was a lot of fun to live with.)

I'm better now, but I share this autobiographical insight so you know that when PBS invited me to review "Stress: Portrait of a Killer," I had more than a little bit of personal interest in the topic.

The program is a co-production of National Geographic and Stanford University starring Dr. Robert Sapolsky and a host of other researchers studying the science of stress, illustrating how our social status affects our stress level. This is true for all primates, it turns out, not just humans; to wit: in a baboon troop, dominant males are far less likely to exhibit stress than their subordinate troop-mates, as evidenced by the increased presence of stress hormones in subordinates' blood. A study of government workers in Great Britain shows similar results: the lower your rank in the civil service, the more likely you are to exhibit high levels of stress,  and its attendant health issues -- even though all workers have access to the exact same level of medical care.

Stress, we learn, is closely related to feelings of control. We see the senior civil servant who controls her own workload tending to her lush garden, remarking that she's never had any real health problems; contrast this with the lower-level worker who's out sick half the time, and talks about feeling so overwhelmed by his workload that it's like skidding in a car on ice.

The film contrasts these social and psychological sources of stress with the biological origin of stress as a survival response. Think of the zebra, stressed in the wild when the cougar comes a' hunting; its heart races, and its body shuts down all but the most essential processes, flooding the zebra's system with the stress hormones that help it propel itself to safety. Unfortunately, we humans have the same physical reaction in situations where our sense of control - not our survival - is at stake.

The results are dire. As the body goes into emergency mode, it shuts down all non-essential processes, including things like growing and healing. It's one thing to shut these processes down while you run from a cougar, and quite another to shut them down for days or weeks at a time. Accordingly, research study after research study links high levels of stress with severe health problems, from blocked arteries to ulcers, not to mention diminished mental capacity - it turns out stress kills brain cells. As one of the researchers, Dr. Carol Shively, concludes, stress isn't an abstract concept -- it's a critical health issue demanding serious attention.
.Killer Stress

So, how do we fix it?  I like Dr. Shively's advice best: the answer, she says, is to change our values as a society. We need to stop prizing ambition over all else, and celebrating the over-achievers who can walk and chew gum and type on their Blackberries all at the same time. But is such a fundamental change in our values and behavior possible?

One troop of baboons, we learn, was able to pull it off - to change the fundamental nature of their society and reduce stress all around. When the troop's alpha males all died - victims, tragically, of tuberculosis, which they got from tainted meat in the dumpster of a nearby nature lodge - the remaining males did something amazing: they were nice. More to the point, they weren't aggressive toward subordinates; suddenly, being a subordinate didn't feel worse than being dominant. The troop as a whole became more harmonious; as rank became less related to quality of life, the baboons who were lower on the totem pole were able, simply put, to chill out.

As Dr. Sapolsky summarized: the cause of stress isn't just your rank, it's what your rank means in your society.

The program's lessons resonate for me. For example: even though I was a manager at my former job, which sounds pretty alpha, I was a middle manager, with a lot of responsibility and no real authority. What's more, the politics of my organization drained me. Now, as a freelancer, I expend far less energy assessing or defending my rank (my dog is happily subordinate). I control my own schedule, and fill my days with activities of my choosing - balancing time spent on work with time spent writing for pleasure, practicing yoga, performing with my improv troupe, volunteering, and more.

Clearly, there's no one-size-fits-all prescription for a low-stress life. For some people, freelancing would be more stressful than working in an office. The take-away, then, is to look at your own life, and figure out how to reduce your own sources of stress - and, how to reduce the stress you may cause other people (in other words: how to be a nicer baboon).

What do you think? Can you see parallels between the research in the program and your own life? Share your thoughts using the comments feature below


Excellent post, Amanda. Wise, inspiring words for all. Thanks for sharing.

As Dr. Sapolsky summarized: the cause of stress isn't just your rank, it's what your rank means in your society.

I control my own rank by looking at what is in my realm of control - my friends and family. If I do right by them I am happy and healthy.

Its just a job, everyone is replaceable, if you are not getting what you want out of the job the only person to blame is yourself.

"NotsharingName", your comment about "not getting what you want out of the job" is utterly asinine.

Remember, everyone - let's be nice baboons!

NotsharingName, I take your point - someone once said to me, "If you're not having fun, it's your own fault," and as harsh as it sounds...I believe it's true. If you don't like your job, it's up to you to make a change. Which isn't to say that making a change is easy - just that no one else can figure out how to make you happy if you can't figure out how to make yourself happy! (or fulfilled, or what-have-you)

The idea of "blame" is where I'd disagree with you - no point blaming yourself or anyone else. Better to figure out what's wrong (again - easier said than done) and fix it (ditto).

Does that seem less - shall we say, far-fetched - Ken?

I was surprised with the conclusion that the lower ranked folks have more stress and that the reason was the job itself and the perception of society on "menial work". There seemed to be an implicit assumption that equal healthcare normalized all other potential reasons for stress. Perhaps there are other home issues with lower-ranked working folks that would bring stress out more quickly other than the fact that the world views them as a lesser being (paying the bills, child care, bad living arrangements, etc)? I worked in and out of the private and public sectors throughout my career (starting at low ranks but escalating quickly to senior ranks) and in many different countries. I found the opposite thing to be true - that the higher the rank the more the stress on the job - because the risks were greater and any mistake I made as a senior careerist affected the livelihood of more than just me. The stress at home was worse also for senior ranks, since hours were longer and were extended greatly by electronic communications. However, stress was significantly reduced when there was an environment of character, compassion, teamplaying at all levels, and brother's keeper - which could be set even in the worst of scenarios with great leaders. I have read that there are more and more firms placing policies in effect that limit the use of emails and text messages after hours and on weekends. This has allowed more productivity (since workforces are happier and less sick). This is in line with what I believe are the roots of stress.

If I am so asinine for my outlook fine - at least I am happy and not stressed out about work.

I just do not see the point in identifying my stress as being caused by something external that I cannot control when it originates in me. I can control my stress in a ton of different ways. An easy way is to change the environment. It may not happen over night but taking action can be empowering.

Remember the nike ads - just do it!

What an interesting read. It did make me wonder: do those baboons (and higher level managers) exhibit less stress because they are on top, or did they get on top because they are less likely to exhibit stress?

Lots of assumptions were thrown around on that show, it seemed to me. The final conclusion implied that it's the bad aggressive guys that make a society stressful, and things are much nicer if they all happen to die. I don't think the researcher was trying very hard to be objective -- what if something else changed besides the alpha males dying?

According to the show, the baboons were better off in every way without the dead alphas. The possibility was never raised that aggressive males might benefit a society under certain conditions, and that the lack of aggressive males could sometimes be a liability.

I think the baboons had aggressive leaders because of previous selection pressures -- maybe threats from other groups. When the aggressive leaders died, those selection pressures were no longer operating so aggressiveness did not return. But they are now more vulnerable.

Scientific research is very easy to misinterpret, by the researchers themselves as well as by the public. People are going to draw unwarranted and simplistic conclusions from this -- that peacefulness and egalitarianism, and low levels of stress, can be attained in any society merely by curtailing aggressive behavior. This is not true -- peace, love and happiness are hard won and aggressiveness evolves naturally in tough competitive situations.

This issue has been a lifelong struggle for me. At the age of nine, I locked myself in a closet and wailed, "I'm going to be as mean as Janine". I was referring to my older sister whose innate aggressiveness seemed to provide her with a far easier life. I've often wondered how much this prizing of aggression is an American phenomenon and how much a simple reflection of human nature.

My struggle continues and I've found this article intriguing.


I agree that there are assumptions in the show, but you have made your own as well. While the studies of the baboons show how stress changes when changes occur in a particular environment, it is how the environment affects the outcome of stress on a social group that should be the main issue. Not whether it is needed or not or whether it actually creates a more or less ideal social group. By looking at it this way, objectivity can be maintained by only looking at the effects stress has on various individuals and social groups.

For example, suppose we have a control group that has all aggressive alpha males and another control group that has all subordinate submissive males. How would each group cope with the difference in stress levels, and what would happen with the control group that had all the aggressive males? Would the aggressive males kill each other or would they establish another hierarchy, and the subordinates of this new "aggressive group" have more stress than they had in the past when they were on the top of the hierarchy?

Therefore, if we look at the affects of stress within a social group or an individual rather than passing judgments whether it is needed or not to maintain a less vulnerable environment we can see if stress is beneficial or not for various groups or individuals. In other words is stress good or bad as it relates to groups or individuals. There may be that certain individuals respond better to stress than others, and could very well be a genetic reason for this. The focus should be on whether stress has causal effects that creates health issues either good or bad, and to use this knowledge for the betterment of individuals and groups, which it seems was the point to the PBS show.

I simply remember another PBS production on stress wherein the investigators examined wound healing in two groups. Group 1 was non-stressed. Group 2 was composed of family members of patients with Alzheimer's Disease. Wounds in Group 1 healed promptly. Wounds produced in Group 2 took an inordinately long time to heal. This is an extremely important basic illustration for surgeons dealing with patients but also for all physicians dealing with a stressed out population. I think Dr. Sapolsky's work and the concepts presented in the video emphasize the negative nature of stress. I, personally, will be persuing this topic for my own information.

Toni - I initially shared your reaction to the notion that higher rank = lower stress, since in my experience, as in yours, people at the management level of an organization experience extreme levels of stress.

But as I reflected as my own experience as a manager, I realized that while I may have seemed high-ranking to an outsider, I didn't really have the level of authority, or control, that matched my responsibility level. Sure, people reported to me, but at the end of the day, I was pretty powerless in terms of managing their workload or empowering them to make decisions that higher-level managers might not support. In other words: I wasn't REALLY alpha.

My take-away, then, is that maybe the apparent rank system of an organization is not always the TRUE rank system, when it comes right down to where control is focused. So maybe high-level managers are stressed in organizations where they aren't really alpha - they're subordinate to the group of 2-3 executives who really make all the decisions.

Pec - the baboon troop that lost the alpha males has apparently thrived for a number of years, so is able to protect itself/survive while still maintaining low stress levels.

That said, I encourage you and anyone else who questions Dr. Sapolsky's methods or simply wants to learn more about his research to check out Stanford's website for this program at: http://killerstress.stanford.edu

I live with one of those aggressive males that causes me tons of stress, and I probably would be less stressed if he died. However, in this case, I am talking about my husband whom I love dearly. He is assuredly an alpha male and is continually stressed out providing for his family in a high-stress and heavy-responsibility job. It becomes really complicated here. The doctors gave him the meds to chill out and get some sleep. I am up all hours of the night caring for sick kids and infants by myself. I am completely exhausted by my husband's complaining and stringent demands, but because of my bipolar disorder, they won't give me anything to perk me up or alleviate my anxiety and depression. In the meantime, the late nights with constantly interrupted sleep have sent my cortisol out the roof, I'm packing on the weight and my triglycerides are super-high. THAT is a real toll that this kind of stress can take. Now I am a fat, b*tchy housewife, the quintessential picture of demesticity failed.

I took care of my dad for a decade with Alzheimers and what made that possible was a constant reframing of the stress. If you are rigid - you die. This technique is not taught anywhere and it should start in junior high school when the pressures of taunting etc start.
As we are living longer and the options for care are spotty at best, more and more of us will be taking care of SOMEBODY eventually and you will need all the stress management skills you can muster.
Good show

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