Book Review #1: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Photo by  Kathleen Van Vaerenbergh


You may well use the word daily. After all, there is always something that causes you to have stress.

Do you know what stress actually is? And what it does to your body and mind?

I didn’t. Or at least not really. 

Until I came across this book. Robert Sapolsky explains in an easy-to-understand and humorous way what physiological stress is and why a zebra will not develop an ulcer and we humans might when we experience chronic stress. 

Stress has a negative impact on our bodies when poorly dosed, especially prolonged exposure to stressful situations impacts our health and well-being.  Few will argue differently today. This book explains exactly how it works, which chemicals in your body are activated in response to a stressful experience. And what you may or may not experience as stressful  prompts you into questioning who you are or who you think you are.

This book is an introduction to stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases, and what does that have to do with our personalities? How can purely psychological turmoil make us sick? What might stress have to do with our vulnerability to depression, the speed at which we age, or how well our memories work? What do our patterns of stress-related diseases have to do with where we stand on the rungs of society’s ladder? Finally, how can we increase the effectiveness with which we cope with the stressful world that surrounds us?

Sapolsky translates science for the layman with a perfect touch of humour. At least a few times a year I revisit the book; there is no better work of reference. Should you want to read the book, be sure not to skip the footnotes. They are hilarious, especially when Sapolsky speaks about his own mostly not very effective ways of dealing with stre

My key takeaway from this book

We often make things more complicated than they need to be. We have a survival system that we activate over and over for things that are not important. And each time we do, we give up a bit of our quality of life and health.

Make sure it matters.

What follows is a collection of my favorite passages and quotes from the book along withy my own thoughts and ideas.

#1 Stress, a lifesaver

For animals like zebras, the most upsetting things in life are acute physical crises. Imagine you are that zebra. A lion has just leapt out and ripped your stomach open, you've managed to get away, and now you have to spend the next hour evading the lion as it continues to stalk you. These are extremely stressful events, and they demand immediate physiological adaptations if you are going to live. Your body’s responses are brilliantly adapted for handling this sort of emergency.

We need stress; it helps us survive. The stress system prepares you in a split second to fight or flee for your life when you find yourself in a death-threatening situation. Stress is an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. Only too often we activate it for the wrong reasons.

#2 Our brain is not really that smart

Essentially, we humans live well enough and long enough, and are smart enough, to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date? Viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention, mostly limited to humans and other social primates. We can experience wildly strong emotions(provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar) linked to mere thoughts.

We humans have been gifted with a cortex that allows us to plan, to create, etc…in a very different way than animals can. So we are smart? Well, not that smart, because our brain does not recognize the difference between what actually takes place and what we conjure up in our minds. Sapolsky says he always has a brain tumor when it’s 2 a.m. in the morning. He lies awake for hours worrying, which results in headaches, obviously caused by a brain tumor he figures. What keeps you awake at night?

#3 Chronic stress puts your health at risk

For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it's either over with or you're over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses - but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.

And there you have it. The chronic activation of your stress system is detrimental to your mental and physical health.  How often do we really find ourselves in life-threatening situations? Honestly? For most of us, not that often, I would think. Hm, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. When we activate the stress-response out of fear of something that turns out to be real, we congratulate ourselves that this cognitive skill allows us to mobilize our defenses early. And these anticipatory defenses can be quite protective, in that a lot of what the stress-response is about, is preparative. But when we get into a physiological uproar and activate the stress-response for no reason at all, or over something we cannot do anything about, we call it things like anxiety, neurosis, panic attack, paranoia…

#4 Can we still cope with this world?

Some powerful psychological factors can themselves trigger a stress response or make another stressor seem more stressful: loss of control or predictability, loss of outlets for frustration or sources of support, a perception that things are getting worse.

Since the end of the last century, we have seen a steady increase in stress complaints and stress-related disorders. Our world also changed significantly. An acronym was even invented for it: VUCA, which stands for volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous. This is the exact opposite of what’s needed for a balanced life. Can we still cope with this world?

#5 About stress management

"More control, more predictability, more outlets, more social support" is not some sort of mantra to be handed out indiscriminately, along with a smile button.

What causes you to have stress and how you experience stress, is unique to you. How you best handle it is too. Look around and experiment with what works for you. Try to find a combination of exercise, social support and meditation that suits you. It makes no sense to plan a marathon in the spirit of stress reduction when you heartily hate running. That will only cause you to have more stress.

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