Sunday, August 1, 2010

Harmful Stress: Lack of Control and the Loaded Gun

A must-read by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine. Lehrer chronicles Robert Sapolsky, one of the leading researchers in the science of stress.

Sapolsky's work echoes a great deal of research establishing that stress can be measured chemically in our bodies, (and that stress is not just a "cultural condition"). Moreover, this research demonstrates that excessive stress shortens our lives, by "making most diseases significantly worse." Something I was not aware of is the fact that chronic stress can lessen the effectiveness of antibiotics and heart surgery. According to Sapolksy, "You can give a guy a drug-coated stent, but if you don’t fix the stress problem, it won’t really matter. Stress is the major long-term risk factor. Everything else is just a short-term fix."

Most significant to me is Sapolsky's conclusion that the amount of stress is not the problem-- "it’s the total absence of control" or the "feeling that nothing can be done" that affects your amygdala (also known as "the lizard brain"), triggers the release of dangerous chemicals and activates a chronic stress positive feedback loop in your body, and causes cumulative negative long-term effects on your health. In other words, the big problem is not the demands of your life, but the despair that may go along with those demands. As others have put it, its not the stress, its the negative stress (or distress) that quite literally eats you up.

Bottom line: the lack of control or the anxiety you feel over workload, income, prospects, etc. is bad enough, but that "feeling is just the trigger. We are the loaded gun."