Stress: Portrait of a killer, A documentary and review

Stress! Yes, we all know too much of it is bad. But sometimes ‘I’m stressed’ becomes so prolonged it turns into Mental Illness. Robert Sapolsky is a Neurobiologist at Stanford University and features in the excellent documentary which I have linked to the blog:  ‘Stress: A portrait of a killer’.

Sapolsky studies the behaviour of Baboons in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. He talks about the origins of stress as a fight/flight response. The stress response kicks in so we can run away from tigers in the wild or so we can chase our prey. The problem with humans is we don’t run away from tigers anymore but this same response is still activated. We perceive situations to be life-threatening such as worries regarding mortgages, traffic jams, work issues and a whole host of others.  Sapolsky claims that whilst in the wild the stress response is activated then switched off – (you either survive or die!), with humans the response is being prolonged and that we are struggling to switch it off.

In the documentary Sapolsky suggests that people in subordinate roles in life are more prone to stress. Having a low ranking job in a hierarchical organisation can increase one’s levels of stress. He explains that these levels of stress (caused by low-ranking position) can be offset by having some status or a sense of control outside of work (for example becoming the captain of a football team.)

Within the Baboon Troup, the lower the rank of the baboon, the more likely it will suffer with stress-related diseases. However Sapolsky observed a tragedy which resulted in a change of culture within the Troup and this change resulted in a decrease in  the amount of incidences of  stress-related disease.  The more dominant and aggressive males of the Troup contracted TB and died, this changed the dynamic of the group. The group became less hierarchical and less threatening and had more emphasis on grooming and sharing, which in turn resulted in less occurences of stress.  The documentary suggests that the culture that we live or work in has a huge impact on our stress levels. 

I loved this documentary. I came away inspired and that is why I decided to upload it to the blog. I can see how my stress has been increased in situations where I had less control and where I was exposed to uncertainty and unpredictability. I think about situations both in childhood and adulthood. Having an understanding of the stress response and what may cause it has helped me manage things a little bit better.

Sapolsky suggests some Stress-Management techniques on the Stanford University Website. His suggestions include: Modifying your environment to have some control and have an understanding of what control you do have, being objective and gaining perspective on things (are you really being chased by a tiger?), having a social support network, practising stress management activities daily and not just at the weekend. Of course sometimes we may need extra help and support to reduce stressors from our lives. Sometimes we can increase our sense of control in small ways and take little steps, perhaps by organising some paperwork or by tidying up – small steps often help.

I hope you enjoyed this documentary..

Thanks Vicky 🙂

7 thoughts on “Stress: Portrait of a killer, A documentary and review

  1. Fascinating documentary and post!, thank you for sharing it and having the willingness to share aspects of your personal experience related to the topic. it is courageous to share in this way since, unlike the peer support group of mums with disabled children, social media can not ensure the same level of support, confidentiality or safety.
    The results of the study were astounding and gave some hope for combatting issues of societies stressors without an over reliance on medication, despite research like this medication is often offered as the first line of ‘treatment’, I know so little about the arguments for and against that approach but intrinsically I feel commerce allows it to proliferate, sadly many of us do not have the comfort of a nurturing group or family to aid us keep buoyant when ‘the winds of changes shift’….yes that’s attributed to Dylan, heavily influenced by scripture!
    I continue to refuse medication (statins) for my well above average cholesterol, I’m convinced about the argument that stress rather than ‘bad’ cholesterol is the bigger factor in heart attack.
    Your suggestions, about making seemingly small steps to regain control of what feels like emotional chaos or practical disorder in our lives, are very valid.


  2. HI Su,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I have found that sometimes concentrating on the little things can help rather than looking at the bigger picture which may be overwhelming. I am glad you liked the documentary, not only is it really interesting and helpful to increase our understanding of stress, I love watching the wildlife too! The opening scene of the man in bed with thoughts whirling around his head is not disimilar to parts of my experience. I feel i have improved in this department by being able to be a bit more objective when the thoughts come in, self-compassion and just being with the feeling until it passes. I think Mindfulness meditation helped with this for me. Although sometimes it still gets me!
    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.


  3. Great post and documentary – very appropriate at the moment with Christmas stress levels everywhere apparent. It’s interesting thinking about the links between stress and your status in the hierarchy – when is that more apparent than at this time of year when the kind of presents you’re able to buy are tied to your financial situation? I really liked the bit in the documentary about the importance of humour. I believe there is research evidence that laughter releases stress hormones – it certainly feels like it. Terry


  4. Hi thanks Terry,

    Yes humour has really helped me, and I found that getting my sense of humour back was a sign of getting better too. ‘Having a laugh’ seems to warm me up, make me feel good.. Some people I know recommend watching comedies as part of a stress management routine. I think it is easy to take in a lot of negative stuff with the News – so having fun is a good balance. Thanks..really good point.



  5. Excellent film and post will be recommending it in my sessions on “Looking after Ourselves” which I do with Social Workers and others in caring professions. I found myself relating to much of this in terms of my own personal experience but also in terms of other people I have known. Social Workers and others in caring roles can often find themselves in situations that are highly stressful particularly when they are acutely aware of the urgent needs of some one but having great responsibility but with little or no real power and the resources to meet those urgent needs.


  6. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for your comment ! I am glad you liked the film and I hope others benefit from it too. It must be difficult to have a high responsibility but have little ‘control’ over a situation. Your sessions have a great title ‘looking after ourselves’ something which has proven to be something of a challenge for me at times. I agree that there are techniques and strategies which can help in this area, and it is empowering to be able to put some of these into practise. I’d love to hear more about your sessions one day!


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