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The Surprising Root of Stress

How many times a day do you suppose you say the word, "stress" or hear it used? Even small children banter the word about as readily as any adult. However, as a child, I don't believe I even knew of the word's existence (and I'm not that old). Sure, we all now know in our enlightened age that stress has a negative effect on our bodies, but I'd bet that you're not aware of some key details that science has revealed of late about what seems to be the overarching root of stress. It may shock you. I recently watched a documentary on this topic called, "Stress--Portrait of a Killer," which was fascinatingly informative, as well as entertaining, thanks to the humorous manner of speech used throughout by the primary scientist featured, Robert Sapolsky. Because the documentary contains a wealth of information about this plague on humanity and because the scientific conclusions both confirm the Bible and raise concerns about the dangers of ignoring certain Scriptural truths in exchange for the lies of our culture, I plan to write a series of blog posts considering this topic. This first post will simply focus on summarizing the findings addressed in the documentary, while subsequent posts will address those scientific findings from a biblical worldview.

What would you guess is the number one cause of stress, outside of our physical needs for food and safety? Money problems, perhaps, or divorce? What about changing jobs, moving, health concerns, and the list of known significant stressors that you might choose from goes on ad nauseam? Although all of those place tremendous stress on humans, there exists a much more significant, insidious culprit that impacts every individual for good or ill. Multiple studies, meticulously documented over multiple decades all reveal the same findings as to this one primary culprit. But, before I address the conclusions, let me first tell you of the research that has been done.

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University, who sports a mass of kinky, curly, long brown hair on both head and face and a witty personality that grabs your attention and holds on, has studied baboons in Kenya for over 30 years. As a scientist who has based his career on studying the dynamics of stress, he long ago determined that the lifestyle of baboons in many ways mirrors the stress humans face and therefore, makes them good specimens for study. (It turns out he was right, as we'll see evidenced in a human study to be discussed in a moment.) He says, "Baboons only spend about three hours a day getting food, which leaves about nine hours of free time a day to devote to making someone else's day miserable...They are creatures that aren't stressed by survival issues but by their own species." Every summer for three decades, while on break from teaching at Stanford, Sapolsky has taken blood samples from all members of the baboon troop to determine the physical effects of stress. Two primary hormones form the backbone of the stress response--adrenalin and glucocortocoid and show up in the blood, indicating the degree to which an individual is stressed. Because it's imperative that the creatures not be stressed when he sedates them for blood withdrawal, he says that he "can't just chase them up and down the savannah for two hours with his jeep till the creature gets winded." Instead, he nonchalantly shoots them unawares with a blowgun, thereby obtaining their blood in whatever that baboon's natural state might be.

The second study featured in the documentary traverses more than four decades, studying more than 28,000 Englanders and has been headed by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. The study is named for Whitehall, which is "the citadel of the British Civil Service, where every job is ranked in a very precise hierarchy."

Because these Britains have nationalized healthcare provided free of charge, stable jobs, and no industrial exposures, they make a perfect laboratory to study the suspected primary cause of stress in humans, who don't have to fight their survival--an individual's rank in hierarchy. The findings in both Sapolsky's and Marmot's studies confirm unequivocally the direct correlation between hierarchal rank and the tremendous negative effects of stress. In both monkeys and humans the higher up the hierarchy an individual finds himself, the less stress hormones and the greater the level of health. Conversely, the lower down on the scale, the more stress hormones and the greater the negative physical impact.

One might think that the greater the responsibility, work load, and pressures at the office the more "stressed" an individual must be and therefore, the more likely one is to experience negative health problems. Actually, if the individual has those "stressors" as a result of being higher on the totem pole, so to speak, then studies show that they will thrive. The underlying factor that determines and regulates our body's stress response is where we view our significance in the hierarchal structures in which we're surrounded.

The Whitehall study found that the higher in rank, the more healthy the individual. The lower in rank had an increasingly higher risk of heart disease. In other words, there was a definitive increase or decrease in heart disease across the British Civil Service for every step up or down in the employee's job rank. In the same way, the number of sick days taken also correlated with an individual's placement in the job hierarchy.

Another study done by Dr. Carol Shively over two decades on captive McCak monkeys, as well as a study done early in Sapolsky's PhD work on rats also confirm these results and corroborate other specific negative effects of stress. So, what are some of the documented physical effects of stress found? Studies found a direct link between putting on weight around the middle (the abdomen) with hierarchal rank and that this fat, in particular, causes the production of hormones that cause further imbalances.

In the McCak study, Dr. Shively found that dominant monkeys had clean arteries, but lower ranking ones had more plaque build-up. Sapolsky's rat study, which has since been confirmed in humans, revealed that stressed rats had dramatic differences in their brain cells. Rather than extensive connections, the extensions were much smaller in the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning--the hippocampus. In other words, "stress makes you stupid," says Sapolsky. Stress due to hierarchy also affects the pleasure aspect of the brain. The more subordinate the individual, the less dopamine activity in the brain, which affects one's ability to experience pleasure. We also know that the immune system is impaired by stress, so the ability to fight off normally occurring bacteria in the body, like that which causes peptic ulcers, decreases. In summary, no area of the body remains untouched by the ravages of the silent killer called stress.

The knowledge that the primary, underlying cause of stress (outside of physical survival) in all individuals is rank, or perceived rank in the hierarchy of one's life has tremendous implications .

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