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Photo by Benny Geypens via Fotopedia

In a world riddled with high expectations, deadlines and competition, it’s difficult to stay grounded.

And by grounded, I mean avoiding the state of constant stress that I’m left with by the end of each week. Yes, weekends are recovery times of sorts.

The effects of chronic stress only hit home in the last year and a half or so, after I (falsely) thought my throbbing leg might be a sign of something more serious — namely deep vein thrombosis since I have a family history with the condition.

So after getting the thumbs up from an exam and electrocardiogram, I became more cognizant of the effects of stress on my body. In addition to sprouting a few gray hairs, I had occasional chest pains and was constantly thinking about what I ought to be doing with my off time, which clearly stripped any pleasure out of relaxing or taking a break.

Despite this, one can argue that stress is good. In the animal kingdom, adrenaline and other stress hormones jumpstart an organism’s fight-or-flight response, which can help it avoid becoming dinner. But in animals such as humans where stress can be created through experiences and mental processes, these temporary stress systems can be switched on permanently.

Despite my knowing this, I still failed to manage my stress.

In recent weeks, however, I think I’m coming around. After learning more about the Whitehall data on work-related stress, I’m convinced I need to rethink my health. Outside of primate studies, this was the first longitudinal attempt to measure the effects of stress in people. Essentially, the research focuses on whether hierarchy in the workplace influences health. It turns out this was very much the case, as individuals with less control over their jobs and hours were more stressed and exhibited poorer health and more sick days than their higher-ranking counterparts. And since the data were collected from British civil servants in the same workplace, factors such as access to health care were the same for the entire sample, limiting confounding variables.

I began asking whether it was even possible to live without stress. After all, our society seems to value productivity over wellness, which has definitely pushed stress to the backburner. As highlighted in National Geographic’s special on this “silent killer,” chronic stress can lead to heart disease, depression and a slew of other health problems.

The show also shared interesting story I heard through Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky — the premier expertise on primate stress.

Given what we know about the topic, the question remains: Is it possible for humans and other primates with hierarchical societies to live without chronic stress?

Interestingly, Sapolsky stumbled upon this answer by accident while studying a group of wild baboons in East Africa. Baboons, primates that exhibit rather rigid social hierarchies, also demonstrated varying levels of stress hormones such as cortisol depending on their social rank, Sapolsky found.

With this line of reasoning, it makes sense that monkeys at the bottom of the totem pole would show increased levels of cortisol from being thrown around and intimidated by superiors (most of the aggressors were males). It’s also reasonable to apply this idea to humans — in fact, this line of research builds on why certain socioeconomic groups suffer more from health problems and have a harder time climbing the social latter.

After spending years studying one group (the Forest Troop), Sapolsky found that a tragic outbreak of tuberculosis wiped out many of the dominant males in the troop, leaving mostly less dominant females in its wake.

But rather than individuals taking the place of the group’s leaders, the less aggressive females kept things relatively peaceful. Even as newcomers joined the group, they adopted a less aggressive more egalitarian (mind my anthropomorphism here) society, which affected everyone’s level of stress. New males who came to the group soon learned the expectations of life there and adjusted their behaviors to fit in. Breaking down the strict hierarchy reduced stress among everyone. It is worth noting, however, that this is an isolated case, so it’s difficult to tell if history will repeat itself in this particular species.

Ultimately, it seems as if society and culture should take more responsibility for influencing stress and allaying it. Perhaps if we take stress reduction more seriously — at the individual and community level, Americans would reap the benefits of greater well-being and satisfaction with life. Yet it seems maintaining competitiveness and well-being is hard to do. We’ll need to change our perspectives and priorities for starters.

LinkedIn has a great overview of the topic — including Sapolsky’s work — in the video below.

All this talk of stress is, well, somewhat stressful! Now if you’ll excuse me while I try to relax!

Also, this wasn’t the focus of my post, but here are tips on stress reduction from Healthfinder.gov.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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