Stress: Portrait of a Killer…


Do Yourself a Favor and Watch Stress: Portrait of a Killer (with Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky)

[Top-down hierarchical structure is a killer... DS]

Intelligence comes at a price. The human species, despite its talent for solving problems, has managed over the millennia to turn one of its most basic survival mechanisms–the stress response–against itself. “Essentially,” says Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, “we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick.”

In the 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer (above), Sapolsky and fellow scientists explain the deadly consequences of prolonged stress. “If you’re a normal mammal,” Sapolsky says, “what stress is about is three minutes of screaming terror on the savannah, after which either it’s over with or you’re over with.” During those three minutes of terror the body responds to imminent danger by deploying stress hormones that stimulate the heart rate and blood pressure while inhibiting other functions, like digestion, growth and reproduction.

The problem is, human beings tend to secrete these hormones constantly in response to the pressures of everyday life. “If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons,” Sapolsky told Mark Shwartz in a 2007 interview for the Stanford News Service, “you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re chronically shutting down the digestive system, there’s a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you’re more at risk for as well.”

Chronic stress has also been shown in scientific studies to diminish brain cells needed for memory and learning, and to adversely affect the way fat is distributed in the body. It has even been shown to measurably accelerate the aging process in chromosomes, a result that confirms our intuitive sense that people who live stressful lives grow old faster.

By studying baboon populations in East Africa, Sapolsky has found that individuals lower down in the social hierarchy suffer more stress, and consequently more stress-related health problems, than dominant individuals. The same trend in human populations was discovered in the British Whitehall Study. People with more control in work environments have lower stress, and better health, than subordinates.

Stress: Portrait of a Killer is a fascinating and important documentary–well worth the 52 minutes it takes to watch.

Related content:

Sapolsky Breaks Down Depression

Dopamine Jackpot! Robert Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure

Biology That Makes Us Tick: Free Stanford Course by Robert Sapolsky

One Comment

The sick irony (as in sick joke) is that prolonged stress, like alcohol, disables one’s judgement leaving one even more susceptible to stress producing environments and behaviors. In the extreme the individual, even the group or family or society itself, becomes addicted to stress itself because intermittent stress relief via drugs or other delusions is highly reinforcing. Another sick irony is that this stress driven culture has evolved a scientific establishment that can show us, in detail, how we are killing ourselves, our families, our societies and eventually, our entire species. I am muchly entertained. If you can’t appreciate cosmic humor and intense irony (two faces of the same phenomenon) all your suffering is going to waste. This is how this became the most interesting of times. Anthropology is especially useful in stroking the strings of irony. Over the last few millennia the stress addicted cultures have largely exterminated all gentle cultures they have come across, but isolated bits and pieces, like magically preserved items salvaged from a house fire, do exist, even here in the US. The ones I have come across are universally poor areas where people, living largely at a subsistence level, help each other. These places also uniformly lack resources that can be turned into global commodities.

Our thinking is perversely confined to individualistic considerations, which is driving all this. It is as if we have become socially blind and are stumbling around in the dark getting hurt and hurting others. Even worse is the suppression of that small part of the society that actually does have a social perspective. The Wobblie’s well known motto of a hundred years ago, An Injury To One Is An Injury To All, was driven into incomprehension by the public mind as scientific propaganda replaced actual reality with a toxic mimic of ever more carefully constructed webs of lies. This is what Winston’s friend in 1984 meant when he described the deliberate wounding of the public mind so as to make independent thought, critical judgement and the direct apprehension of reality impossible for the vast majority and suppressible in Room 101 with scientific emotional torture. If divide and conquer is the basic strategy of oppression, then the logical extreme is that is each individual is divided from each other, thereby erasing the reality of society itself as Margret Thatcher asserted while claiming that there is no such thing as society, but more importantly each individual is divided in herself, at perpetual war with her own intrinsic drives to connect. The slave master seeks a helpless slave.

The message becomes, “Poison yourself. It’s good for you.”

Of course following these trains of thought and observation can be harmful to one’s mental health, sort of like staring at the sun is not a good idea. I immunize myself with a world view that sees all this horror as symptomatic of a world system that is on the verge of collapse. Collapse of this kind has been a great boon to ordinary people historically, but it is not guaranteed to do so. Folks still dazzled by the smoke and mirrors that they were brought up with are likely to self destruct and take innocents with them. An unnecessary sadness, but a probable one. With any luck a post collapse future will be more human scale than this one and therefore more just. Of course passivity is itself harmful to mental hygiene, so by all means, find something positive to do. Try gardening. Network with people to learn. Soon your skills may feed many, especially if you learn to grow potatoes.



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