What A Zebra Taught Me About Stress & Mindfulness

I recently came across a book on stress by Stanford University neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky. The book is titled “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. As a kid who had upper and lower gastrointestinal disorders by the time I was four years old (due to growing up in a stressful environment), I found this of particular interest. Like any other animal, a zebra will flee predators, but Dr. Sapolsky makes the point that once it is safe, the zebra is no longer stressed about its narrow escape from a hungry lion. The stress is over. Done. Time to eat some grass. Like humans, animals do have a “fight or flight” response when threatened, but they seem to handle it better. I don’t know about you, but that has never been the case for me. I have an awesome fight response which has saved my life more than once. I just have a hard time remembering that there isn’t a “white tiger” (or in the case of the zebra, a lion) crouching around every corner waiting to pounce. The stress response can become a chronic physiological state that’s hard to turn off if you don’t learn to control it.

Don’t you wish you could be more like a zebra — out of sight, out of mind?

Not in the sense of eating grass (although some wheat grass shots would be a good addition), but learning how to deal with stress so that it doesn’t mess up your day, your week, month …or, most important, your health. A small, study from the University of California, San Francisco suggests we can reduce the impact of stress on our health via mindfulness. The trick is to counter stressful thoughts and emotions by being aware of them in the moment, looking at them from a distance and not judging them as good or bad.

The Stress Hormone Effect

The researchers enrolled 24 overweight or obese women in their study, all of whom practiced mindfulness. They tested their cortisol (stress hormone) levels for four days. Over time, high levels of cortisol can inflict physical damage worsening a long list of disorders including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, headaches, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal conditions.

I bet you can guess what they found… Anxiety, negativity and the tendency to over-think or obsess about problems were positively related to increased cortisol levels first thing in the morning. But not as much as when the women were able to look at their issues mindfully. They noted that a high level of acceptance via mindfulness apparently put the strongest damper on the physical response to stress.

The upshot of all this is that being able to describe and accept stressful experiences mindfully may blunt the impact of psychological distress on your physical health.

Now, I realize I’m not likely to change my personality and become a monk, nor would I want to change something that has literally saved my life in the past. I just want to learn to channel that energy. I have found that practicing martial arts, prayer, meditation, guided imagery, a healthy diet and some simple supplements do wonders to tone down my busy brain.

 

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