Stress and Anxiety: What We Have in Common with Baboons

These days more then ever I seem to be seeing people who are carrying extra loads of anxiety, stress and anger. But according to research in these areas, human beings aren’t the only ones who experience stress. All vertebrates–fish, birds, and reptiles–respond to stressful situations by secreting the same hormones that we humans do, such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids, which instantaneously increase the animal’s heart rate and energy level. Our fear response, remember, is nature’s way of keeping us safe. We all have it encoded into our DNA, whether fish or fowl, human or animal. But fish and reptiles metabolism doesn’t get derailed and deregulated the way it does in people and other primates, like baboons for example. Baboons and people, it seems, are both intelligent enough to think our way into lots and lots of extra stress that luckier fish and reptiles seem to avoid. What’s the crucial difference here? Our ability (and a baboons ability) to THINK and our quality of SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS, it’s that psycho-social thing.

Dr.Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University found that “Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out. . . . For example, having your worst rival taking a nap one hundred yards away gets you agitated.” A professor of biological and neurological sciences, Sapolsky has spent more than three decades studying the physiological effects of stress on health. “If you’re a gazelle, you don’t have a very complex emotional life, despite being a social species,” he says. “But primates are just smart enough that they can think their bodies into working differently. It’s not until you get to primates that you get things that look like depression. . . . If you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you’re going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick.”

How Social Rank and Connectedness Impact Stress

Sapolsky’s team has found that baboons, especially “type A” baboons, often have chronically elevated levels of stress hormones that impact their health negatively. “Their reproductive system doesn’t work as well, their wounds heal more slowly and they have elevated blood pressure. . . . So they’re not in great shape.” Interestingly, both low-ranking and type A baboons are among the most susceptible to stress. But here’s an interesting finding, relationships and social connections can actually counter this stress response. Baboons who need baboons, it turns out, are the luckiest baboons in the world, just like people who need people. Among baboons, social isolation may play an even more important role than social rank as far as stress goes.

“Up until fifteen years ago, the most striking thing we found,” says Sapolsky, “was that, if you’re a baboon, you don’t want to be low-ranking, because your health is going to be lousy. But what has become far clearer, and probably took a decade’s worth of data, is the recognition that protection from stress related disease is most powerfully grounded in social connectedness, and that’s far more important than rank.” That’s why when you’re feeling stressed out, calling a friend, gossiping with a co-worker or going out for a walk or lunch with someone can make you feel so much calmer.

How Human Beings Can Use Imagination to Reduce Stress

Human beings can even take stress reduction to another level, we can do something that animals aren’t equipped to even conceive of. We can think creatively. We can imagine ways of seeing a situation, for example, of reframing and understanding it that can turn what could be a stressor into something that we don’t worry about as much or that we can manage differently. “Letting go and letting God”, “turning it over”, “taking baby steps” and living “a day at a time” are all wonderful ways of reducing psychological and emotional stress and unnecessary worry, the kind that adds nothing to our lives and gets in the way of emotional sobriety. Human beings can, in short, conceive of and create change; we can use our minds to reframe, to see things in a better light. “We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of,” says Sapolsky.

For example, I might say, “This job, where I’m a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that I’m the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church”–that sort of thing. It’s not just somebody sitting here, grooming you with their own hands [as in the primate world]. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I’m not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character, and there’s no primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we’re capable of is extraordinary. We can use our creative imaginations to get all tied up in knots or to do just the opposite, to enjoy and relax into the life we’re living.

Twelve step programs are perhaps one of the most successful networks of social connectedness, isolation reduction and stress management in the world. So many of us who find the rooms come to a sense of deep gratitude for whatever brought us there; program also supplies Good Orderly Direction and gives meaning and purpose to our lives and relationships; if ever there were a network that aids in stress and anxiety reduction, this is it.

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