On Modern Stressors, or <i>Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers</i>

The majority of our fears are fears we make up. They're bogus. Fake. Nonsense.
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"I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

It's that time of year again. No, I don't mean fall or Halloween, I mean election time. And while I get annoyed with the daily phone calls from political candidates, they remind me of what is at stake. Roosevelt's words are as true today as they were in 1933. Our nation is in trouble. People are worried about the economy, about their jobs, about their health (and health insurance). We are looking for a leader -- someone to get our nation back on track. Someone who will save us from ourselves. A hero, if you will.

I'm not here to tell you who that will be. I honestly don't know. Being president is a job you couldn't pay me to apply for. I have enough stress in my life without carrying the burdens of a nation on my shoulders, and I greatly admire those who have the guts and tenacity to attempt just that. So what's my point?

Regardless of your political views, there is a lesson to be learned here. To go back to FDR's famous words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." What does that even mean? I think FDR's point was one that stress researchers now know to be quite accurate. The majority of our fears are fears we make up.[1] They're bogus. Fake. Nonsense. And when it comes down to it, they're not even real. Why? Because they're psychological fears. And to any other species in the animal kingdom, they would make zero sense.

So why do we fall for them? Because they're real to us. They're important, life-changing, and sometimes catastrophic to us at that moment in time, but really unimportant in the grand scheme of things. If you've never read Robert Sapolsky's book Why Zebra's Don't Get Ulcers, I encourage you to pick up a copy. In it, he explains exactly why zebras don't get ulcers, among other things -- and why humans do.

As I've discussed in my previous blogs, we are one stressed-out group of people. But, you'll notice that the list of top stressors doesn't actually include anything life-threatening. In fact, everything on that list is self-created. I know, I know. You didn't create the economy or make your spouse get cancer, but hear me out. Everything on that list, everything that stresses us out -- for the most part -- is psychological in nature. Yes, the economy is in the tank, the job market is horrendous, and it sucks that your loved one has cancer (believe me, I know: I lost my dad to cancer three years ago). Does that mean you have to be afraid of these things, though? No. It doesn't. When psychological stressors are involved, you get to choose what to be afraid of.

So barring actual life-or-death physical threats, the only fear we really do need to be afraid of is our own psychological made-up fear. Is it important to vote for the next president? Of course. Should we quit our job just because it stresses us out? Maybe, maybe not. The point is: We are wasting a lot of time and energy being stressed out over things that don't really matter. So why don't zebras get ulcers? Because they only fear things that could kill them. Their fears are short-lived. They see a lion, they run. They get away or they get eaten. Our fears are chronic. Our fears never seem to go away, and if they do, we quickly replace them with something else. Chronic stress leads to chronic illness. That's why humans get heart disease and why stressed-out kids can miss entire growth spurts.

Not only are we a nation of stressed-out people, we are a nation of chronically ill people. But it doesn't have to be that way. How do we stop it? We don't; you do. You are the key to stopping it. You can be the one to make the change in your own life. Stop stressing out over things that don't matter and I guarantee your health with improve. Then be that role model; set the example for others. If you aren't so stressed, your kids won't be so stressed, and so on. It's a chain reaction. But it won't start on its own -- it has to be set in motion. You need to set it in motion. That's right -- you. Start today. Or should I say, stop today. Stop falling for the nonsense. Stop buying into made-up stressors. But don't be afraid to stop being afraid of fear.


[1] Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. W. H. Freeman, 1998.

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