I’ve always loved that patch of stillness that succeeds the holidays: No work, no school, no parties to prepare for or gifts to buy. The sun doesn’t rise until 7:20 and it sets again just after 5, abandoning well over half of the day’s 24 hours to darkness. For me, this means I can embrace my tendencies toward hibernation without feeling antisocial. The first quiet days of January feel like a reprieve from the tumult of the previous year.
But the lull doesn’t last long. Soon, I’m clamoring to get back on track with New Year’s resolutions already forgotten. I’m back at work, back in the full, wide-ranging swing of things, and life gets stressful, quickly.
At least once a year, usually around this time, I return to pages I’ve dog-eared in Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, in which the author details the ways in which being in a constant state of low-level stress (which most of us are) leads to illness. A book about stress may not seem like fun reading, and the topic itself can be stress inducing. But Sapolsky’s book reminds me of the importance of prioritizing stress-reduction strategies—my health, and ultimately my life, depends on them.
While enumerating the ways in which stress can make us ill, Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, offers practical advice for developing coping strategies, and devotes the book’s final section to managing stress. Some of Sapolsky’s pointers are well known, but even oft-repeated advice about exercising seems new coming from Sapolsky’s clear-sighted and evidence-based writing. Here are some of the most practical insights from the stress expert.
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: Exercise makes you feel good. It causes your body to secrete beta-endorphin, improving your mood, and completing a hard workout rewards you with a sense of accomplishment that increases self-esteem.
Exercise is a particularly good coping mechanism for stress because “the stress-response is all about preparing your body for a sudden explosion of muscular activity,” Sapolsky explains. An animal’s reaction to a stressful situation is either to fight or to flee, both intensely physical activities—if we engage our bodies similarly and use our stress hormones to propel our movements (one of their original purposes), we reduce the stress-induced tension in the body.
Unfortunately, exercise isn’t a cure-all. Physical activity tempers the stress-response for only a few hours to a day after completing the activity. And those of us who have found maintaining an exercise regimen stressful won’t be surprised that studies with rats show that forcing yourself to do an activity you don’t enjoy will increase stress rather than reduce it.
You’ll get the most benefit from exercise if you do it 20-30 minutes at a time, a few times a week, and if it’s something you enjoy. Keep in mind that too much exercise is itself a stressor, so don’t overdo it!
Like exercise, meditating only truly relieves stress when done regularly. Sapolsky warns that although there are many studies on the benefits of meditation, many of them are not randomized, meaning these studies examine people who have already chosen to meditate, and “it’s not random who chooses to meditate.” The type of person who meditates regularly may also be the type who cares about nutrition, or the type who practices yoga. A study on meditation’s effect on blood pressure, for example, may not be able to pinpoint exactly what it is that lowers blood pressure—is it really the meditation? Or is it something else in the meditator’s lifestyle? It’s difficult to create studies that avoid this problem, so while there’s a correlation between meditation and lower stress levels, don’t depend on meditation alone to keep you stress-free.
Sapolsky also cautions readers not to fall for claims that one meditation technique or school is more effective than another. Again, studies on effectiveness are extremely hard to carry out, so don’t feel the need to shell out hundreds of dollars for a brand-name course if you already have a meditation practice that’s working for you.
3. Watch Out for “John Henryism”
According to legend, John Henry, the American folk hero, hammered steel drills into rock to make holes for explosives during railway construction. One day, he tested his skill in a race against a steam-powered drill. He won, but immediately died from the stress of the effort.
Sapolsky cites Sherman James of Duke University, an expert on John Henryism, who defines it as involving “the belief that any and all demands can be vanquished, so long as you work hard enough.” In other words, John Henry-types take responsibility for everything that happens to them, and believe sheer hard work can solve any problem.
Occasionally, displaying a strong internal locus of control, as John Henrys do, is a positive trait. In one study of male Harvard graduates in the 1940s, traits indicating John Henryism predicted less stress and lifelong health. But here’s the catch: Believing we have control over everything that happens to us in life is only beneficial for those of us living in the “privileged, meritocratic world in which one’s efforts truly do have something to do with the rewards one gets.” Sapolsky points out that most people don’t live in that meritocratic world, even though, as Americans, we pride ourselves on our work ethic and depend on the country’s foundational myth that we all get out of life as much or as little as we put in.
In reality, poverty, the education gap, prejudice, racism, sheer bad luck…all create environments in which one’s hard work may not yield an equivalent or just outcome. In these situations, and even in the more moderate conditions many of us live in, it can be a “disaster” to be a John Henry. Studies show that the condition increases risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in all but the most privileged.
You can decrease your stress levels by focusing on the things you can control, but it’s not helpful or healthy to believe you can control everything. The pressure can lead to exhaustion and guilt. If you’re able to be honest about what you can’t control, let it go, and focus your energies on what you can, you’re more likely to feel less stressed.
4. Seek Social Support…But Also Know When You Need Time Alone
Study after study shows that strong relationships decrease stress, and maintaining a strong social network is correlated with a longer, happier life. But this doesn’t mean you can lower your stress levels simply by surrounding yourself with people, especially if you’re an introvert. Forcing yourself into social situations where you feel uncomfortable will almost certainly trigger an anxiety response—not the effect you’re after. In studies with monkeys, social interaction with strangers increased the stress-response, while interaction with animals they already knew decreased the stress-response.
Social support is only supportive if it comes from the right people, so depend on your established friend group and family to get you through stressful times, unless you know you’re the type of person who enjoys meeting new people. Otherwise, leave the seeking of new friendships for a less stressful moment in your life.
Sapolsky points out that “one of the strongest stress-reducing qualities of social support is the act of giving social support,” of feeling needed. If you’ve found in the past that volunteering decreases your stress, go for it. But again, if volunteering feels like yet another commitment that adds to your anxiety, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
5. If You’re Religious or Spiritual, Find Solace in Your Beliefs; If You’re Not, Don’t Worry About It
Many studies indicate that religious or spiritual beliefs and practices can lower disease risk and “accelerate recovery from disease.” Sapolsky takes some time distinguishing between “religiosity” and “spirituality,” but acknowledges, “the health literature says roughly similar things about both,” and so uses the terms interchangeably.
However, the idea is controversial. Many of the studies on religion and health are badly designed and implemented. Even the good studies often don’t meet the “gold standard” of science research because most require participants to assess their own level of religiosity or spirituality, “and folks are notoriously inaccurate at this sort of recall.” You also can’t randomly assign participants to study groups, telling one group to become atheists and the other to start believing in God. At best, studies may indicate a correlation between religiosity and health, but determining a causal relationship is tricky.
Still, the link between religiosity and health is there. One reason could be that people who are religious often have a built-in community, reaping the health benefits of social support. Within that community they also gain “meaningful social roles, good role models, [and] social capital.”
In stressful times, one of the biggest benefits of being religious or spiritual seems to be the corresponding belief that the stress-causing events have a purpose. Even if you don’t understand why you’re sick or broke or grieving, you get the “stress-reducing advantages of attribution,” of knowing there’s a reason for the stress and a ruling deity who’s responsible.
Further, if you believe in a deity that intervenes in the world, you have the comfort of knowing that God has chosen you to carry this burden. The feeling of being supported in your faith has huge stress-relieving benefits.
Sapolsky is quick to point out that doctors shouldn’t necessarily counsel their non-believing patients to find religion. Along with the studies showing a link between religiosity and good health are also studies linking religiosity and bad health. Sapolsky doesn’t go into the reasons religious belief may be detrimental to health, but assures that stress-reduction is just as attainable for non-believers.
6. Maintain Cognitive Flexibility
According to health researcher Aaron Antonovsky, the best predictors of good health are “coping responses built around fixed rules and flexible strategies.” The key word here is “flexible.” There isn’t one cure-all strategy that’s going to decrease our stress in every situation. We need to have multiple coping strategies in our arsenal so that we’re able to adapt our approach depending on the stressor and the environment.
Being in the midst of a stressful situation is not always the time we feel like trying something new, but it’s often exactly what we need to do to find relief. So if your go-to means of coping doesn’t seem to be doing the job, try others until you find something that works. No strategy is effective in every situation.
7. Just Do Something…And Do It Often
Beyond having the flexibility to try different strategies, the coping techniques you choose aren’t all that important—“the mere act of making an effort can do wonders,” Sapolsky writes. People suffering from depression feel better just by making a therapy appointment. Taking action is a huge step toward feeling a sense of control over the situation, which, to a certain extent, lowers stress levels.
So, “if your special stress reduction trick is to stand on a busy street corner in a toga reciting Teletubbies monologues, you’re going to benefit from that, simply because you’ve decided that making a change is…a priority,” Sapolsky writes.
If Teletubbies monologues aren’t your thing, yoga, running, boxing, journaling, coloring, listening to music, punching pillows…any activity that helps you vent (and doesn’t harm others) is fair game. Whatever your preferred strategy, don’t wait until you’re super stressed to employ it. Make a habit out of your coping mechanisms, and they’ll be more effective when you need them the most.
8. Don’t Knock Denial
In most cases, denying the reality of a situation isn’t helpful. But “in the face of terrible news beyond control, beyond prevention, beyond healing,” studies have found denial to be a healthy form of coping (the only form, in some instances). In a 1960s study concerning parents of children dying of cancer, those who denied the likelihood of death, or the likelihood of relapse after remission, were better able to cope with the child’s illness.
Regarding lesser stressors, optimism is still important, but complete denial may be unwise. Sapolsky suggests you “hope for the best and let that dominate most of your emotions, but at the same time let one small piece of you prepare for the worst.” Finding this balance is probably easier said than done, but it’s a good intention to keep in mind.
These are just a few of the gems in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Read the whole book to better understand how stress affects the body, and what you can do to prevent stress-related illnesses.