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 🙂