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Jungle Wisdom

By Christopher Vaughan

Sapolsky's field observations on stress in male baboons can be summed up in one dictum: don’t be at the bottom of a very hierarchical society. Baboons’ pecking order is based on who can beat up whom. Weaklings are picked on, they are the last to get food and they stand little chance of winning mates—all of which contributes to high stress levels.

Working at the cellular level in his Stanford lab, Sapolsky has shown that chronically high stress levels weaken immune systems and can harm or destroy other cells throughout the body. His team was among the first to show that elevated levels of stress hormones can kill cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories.

Other pieces of advice arising out of the work of Sapolsky and others are more broadly applicable:

Have an outlet for stress. Beaten baboons usually rip into even weaker baboons to make themselves feel better, but this is not a great choice for humans. We can shed stress through physical activity like running or other exercise.

Take control where you can. Top baboons have the most control of their environment because they decide whether to pick a fight, when to seize food from others and which mates they want. Low-ranking baboons have little control and are constantly worried (usually with good cause) about being dumped on. Humans can counteract anxieties by concentrating on the things they can control. For instance, you can’t make everyone on the road drive safely, but you can pick where and when you drive, and you can be extra-careful behind the wheel. Once you take those steps, try to accept that driving involves some risk but you are unlikely to have an accident.

Know when threats are real. Baboons who freak out every time the top baboon comes toward them have higher stress levels than those who are able to see that the head honcho is only passing them on the way to the water hole. Similarly, there is no reason to let your blood boil because some jerk is yelling at you on the highway, and it’s especially pointless to stress about it for hours afterward. Stay calm unless the jerk is physically threatening—trying to drive his car into you, for example.

In short, much of what stress researchers are finding is reflected in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s trite-and-true prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Sapolsky says advice like this, or “Don’t worry, be happy,” might sound platitudinous, but its effect on our mental and physical health in the face of psychological stress can be significant.

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