“If you get chronically, psychosocially stressed,
you're going to compromise your health.”
Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D
Neurobiologist, Stanford University
Author, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
The emotional challenges associated with COVID-19 are easily overlooked because more attention-grabbing aspects dominate the daily headlines.
Those dramatic headlines distract us from the primary emotional challenge of our time -- managing the anxiety that comes with unpredictability and complexity.
Because we want answers no one can give us, because all kinds of inconvenience and randomness have descended upon us, because we instinctively fear the unknown, we are, individually and collectively, under heightened stress.
Masks or no masks? Schools open or closed? Workplaces remote or in-person? Myth or fact? Will family gatherings, lunch dates, beach visits, and normal religious services calm us down or kill us?
In the most literal sense, most of us feel out of control.
If you also belong to a minority community, add the chronic stress of discrimination and systemic exclusion: How do I stay vigilant when the data tells me I am medically at risk? How do I respond when I am categorized or dismissed? What will it take for me to claim my own future?
Robert Sapolsky, quoted above, is one of the most knowledgeable stress researchers on the planet. He’s spent more than four decades studying the physiological effects of stress on human and animal health. His pioneering work includes studies of wild baboons on the African savannah, and his research on human stress cuts across all cultures.
Real and fake threats
Sapolsky thinks our basic problem with stress management is distinguishing fake threat from real threat.
Responding to a real, short-term threat with heightened stress is appropriate and healthy. When a truck swerves towards you and you jump out of the way, you function like a gazelle that spots a lion in the wilderness. It’s the stress response that saves your life.
But what if the truck or lion doesn’t exist?
Sapolsky’s studies have shown that humans respond to imagined threats in the exact same way that the gazelle responds to a lion.
"If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons, you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. All sorts of aspects of brain function are impaired, including neurons in the parts of the brain relating to learning, memory and judgment.”
Non-life-threatening stressors, such as constantly worrying about the COVID-19 virus or about how your kids will turn out, trigger the release of adrenalin and other stress hormones. Over time, Sapolsky discovered, this heightened state can have devastating consequences to your health.
Our daily lives offer up lots of opportunities to get upset: The business is challenged, we believe we don’t measure up or aren’t in shape, there’s not enough time in the day, our kids are complaining, we forgot to stop for groceries.
But how much of what distresses us represents a genuine threat?
In times of unpredictability, humans function like frightened gazelles who see lions everywhere. Even though most of the lions are invented, our blood glucose levels still shoot up, and our heart rates increase. We are in trouble not because of the lions, but because of our automatic response to a perceived danger.
Of course, we also over-respond to real lions. Pandemics with indefinite cures, slanted media portrayals of events, and stock market fluctuations are real, yet outside our control. How do we find the middle ground between dismissing a genuine threat and over-reacting to it?
Part of the answer might be closer than we imagine.
Sapolsky found that humans have a big advantage over other species: we have access to each other. He discovered that what’s most important in determining stress-related illness is not social standing, economics, or lack of control, but relationship connectedness.
“What probably took a decade's worth of data, is the recognition that protection from stress-related disease is most powerfully grounded in social connectedness, and that's far more important than rank," says Sapolsky.
He says humans can overcome low social status and isolation by belonging to multiple relationship systems.
"We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of," Sapolsky said.
"For example, I might say, 'This job, where I'm a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn't matter. What really matters is that I'm the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church'—that sort of thing. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that…I'm not alone. The range of supports that we're capable of is extraordinary."
The need for social connection is one we all share. No matter what our situation, isolation can make it worse.
Well-connected relationships do not solve all stress problems. Human atrocities, bias-based inequities, and natural disasters inflict enduring suffering on human life.
But staying connected provides a way to manage how we respond to these and other challenges. It also gives us a reason to stay alive.
The same brain that make us smart enough to generate the kind of psychological stress that's unheard of in other primates can be used to seek and maintain a social support system.
Knowing that we’re not alone turns out to be a big deal.