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Tips for coping with stress from rats, baboons and other animals

Posted Mar 28 2009 3:05pm
I'm a geek- I freely admit it. One of my new favorite geeky activities is iTunes U, which contains a bunch of free lectures and videos on virtually any subject under the sun. I listen to these a lot on my way into work, as they make the ride go a lot quicker. Yesterday and today, I listened to two lectures by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, author of the book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

Sapolsky researchers specifically the neuro-psycho-biology of the stress response- what the physiological outcomes are, and what psychological and environmental factors can mediate this response. And his research, combined with a rich background provided by other scientists, has led him to figure out a bunch of very basic tips to help us cope with stress:
  • An outlet or hobby. Rats who could gnaw on a piece of wood after receiving a very mild shock didn't develop any stress-related diseases, while those with no way to "cope" with the stress did develop diseases (ulcers, high blood pressure, etc).
  • Predictability. If the rats received a brief warning that the shock was going to happen, even if they couldn't avoid it, they did not develop stress-related diseases.
  • Sense of control. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
  • An ability to tell the important stressors from the not-so-important ones. This one came from Sapolsky's own work with baboons. If male baboons reacted to every minor threat from another male as needing a massive, aggressive response, they had higher levels of stress hormones.
  • A sense that things are improving. Also pretty self-explanatory.
  • Friends. This, says Sapolsky, is perhaps the most important mediator of stress. Cloning and medication and all of these advances are saving human lives, but having a friend to talk to, to share things with, to understand what it is you're going through, may be the most live-saving of all.
Maybe this is why blogging is so therapeutic for me- it incorporates all of these elements. I still have a lot of work to do in order to better incorporate these ideas into my everyday life, but I think these are really basic, really important elements to making it through the day intact.

What do you think? Anything to add to the list?

To listen to these lectures, go to iTunes and do a search for "Robert Sapolsky". The two I listened to were "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" and "Stress and Coping: What Baboons Can Teach Us." They're an hour each but extremely entertaining.
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