Stress. We talk about it a lot, but what do we know about what actually causes it, and how we’re supposed to manage it?
In the 1970s, psychologists such as Peter Levine studied how wild animals processed the stress of being preyed upon (research that’s helped treat PTSD). If the animals survived, they could be seen running in circles, foraging, digging, yawning, shaking. Afterward, they’d go back to doing whatever they were doing before something tried to eat them, and all was well. But in humans, that “release button” seems to be stuck. So what’s the problem?
In 2008, National Geographic brought together a host of researchers for the documentary, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” One of those was Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University.
In the late 1970s, Sapolsky began researching stress in a laboratory on the plains of Kenya, East Africa. His subjects lived in large communities that were highly-socially stratified and led by a few alpha males. Since only a few hours a day were devoted to gathering food, they spent the rest of their time, as Sapolsky says, “making each other miserable.”
At any given time, he was apt to witness two males fighting, the loser going off to smack a subordinate, who in turn “bites a female who slaps an adolescent who knocks an infant out of a tree.” Although Sapolsky admits, “I don’t actually like baboons all that much,” they were a “perfect model for studying Westernized stress-related disease” because unlike other wild animals whose stress is largely related to being preyed upon, the social and psychological chaos in this community was being created and sustained by their own species. Does this sound familiar?
Sapolsky ultimately discovered that low-ranking members of the baboon troop suffered the same symptoms of stress that low-ranking and chronically-stressed humans suffer: high levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream, diminished brain activity, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, heart disease, premature aging, depression and so on.
Science has also proven, as anyone paying attention can see, that this is also true for the animals caught up in our human web — animals who are victims of abuse, neglect, confinement, experimentation, factory farming, fighting, breeding, used as slaves and as tokens for human entertainment and profit.
Ultimately, any living being subjected to constant power-overs, bullying, threats, harm, criticism, feeling devalued, out of control and unsure of their future, is going to suffer — mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Luckily, research also uncovered some good news, or perhaps at least some direction we might follow — if we choose to. At the University of San Francisco in California, biologist Elizabeth Blackburn studied the stress levels of a group of mothers with developmentally challenged children who came together regularly to laugh, cry, accept and support each other.
She and fellow researcher, Elissa Epel, witnessed the importance of this within the realm of biology. Each strand of DNA is covered with a protective coating called a telomere, which keeps the ends of the strand from becoming frayed. This coating deteriorates over time, and chronic stress accelerates this deterioration. But another enzyme, telomerase, can actually rebuild the telomere — and what stimulates the growth of that enzyme are emotions and behaviors associated with compassion, caring for others, social acceptance and community.
Sapolsky’s revelation came on the heels of what was initially a tragedy. In the late 1980s, one of the baboon troops he’d been studying had taken to foraging in the garbage dump of a tourist lodge and came upon some meat tainted with tuberculosis. When Sapolsky returned, he found that all of the alpha males were dead.
What remained were a large number of females, adult males he called “the good guys” and the adolescents and babies. Amazingly, these individuals had not returned to a hierarchical social structure rooted in dominance, brutality, fear and intimidation. Instead, they were living in peace and harmony, spending their time grooming, playing, and caring for one another.
When adolescent males bristling with bravado showed up to join the troop (which they do after leaving their families of origin) they quickly learned, as Sapolsky remarked, “We’re not like that here.”
Eventually, these new guys became good guys, too. At the time of the documentary 20 years later, this troop was still living in harmony. In a single generation, they had moved from decades of violence and chaos to a life of peace and cooperation.
So, are we courageous enough to act with compassion? Can we humble ourselves enough to learn from a baboon?
(Colleen Dougherty’s 12-year history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the NM State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)