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.
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