Stress and Why We Should Be Like the Zebra
Adapted from the Heartfire Rising (Mini) Podcast. CLICK HERE to listen to the episode.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the late psychiatrist, neurologist, and philosopher, Viktor Frankl:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It is more impactful for me because it comes from a man who was a holocaust survivor who lost his wife and family. And in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he recounts periods of hope under the bleakest of circumstances.
Over the past year and a half, amid a global pandemic, I’ve spoken with many people facing death, isolation, poor health, depression, anxiety, and a multitude of physical and mental health issues. All of which creates lasting chronic stress, which disrupts every system in our bodies, hurts our immune systems, and if it goes on long enough, is a key player in the later development of heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
I work with preventive medicine physician Dr. Roger Landry on the Dr. Roger & Friends podcast, and you’ll frequently hear him say that, “Stress rots us from within.”
In Robert Sapolsky’s Groundbreaking book, Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, he talks about the acute stress a zebra faces. If attacked by a lion, its fight, flight, or freeze response will kick in, and if he happens to outrun the lion, then he’s out grazing in the field a few minutes later as if nothing ever happened.
But that’s not what we humans do is it? Thanks to the Default Mode Network in our brains, our minds wander all over the place. We ruminate over past regrets. We worry about the situations right in front of us, and we may forecast all possible scenarios of gloom and doom about the future. All of this amounts to us continually activating the stress response — to the point that this now becomes “normal” to our bodies. If you’ve ever felt incredibly anxious when absolutely nothing is wrong, well, that’s not unusual. Your body may be having trouble shutting off that response.
Sapolsky discusses a series of stress studies in which he offers several coping tools based on decades of research. Those tools include…
1. Mindset. In other words, how a person feels about their stress. Because what one person finds stressful might be completely fine for someone else. How we perceive our stress influences its effects on us.
2. Finding an Outlet. One example in finding an outlet to cope with stress is exercise. Unlike the zebra, we’re not running from a charging lion, but our bodies prepare us as if we are, which is what makes exercise so important to combat stress.
3. Predictability. We tend to cope better with stress when we learn what we can about a situation and understand what’s happening. This is why during Covid many of us are reading as much as we can to understand it and how to protect ourselves and others.
4. Control. We manage stress by addressing what is in our control and accepting that there are circumstances that are outside of that control. Using Covid as an example, we might choose to get vaccinated, wear a mask, socially distance, meet in small groups. What we can’t control are other people. And we might find ourselves having to accept that other people are making different choices for themselves, whether we like it or not.
I’ll talk about these varying coping tools in future articles. But just for today as an optional action item: How can you follow Viktor Frankl’s lead and, “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances?” Your choice is the first step in coping with chronic stress.