Turning on the Television after reading Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, I was surprised to see a Nation Geographics study of Stress and its Toll. Wow. You know you are doing what is meant to be done when these synchronicities show up in your life.
The Whitehall study of stress demonstrated that people under stress deposit fat on the abdomen. If the person is removed from stress or learns stress lowering techniques the fat moves away from the belly area and is distributed differently. The difficulty in contemporary society is that stress reduction is not valued. Work is.
Another study which the documentary referenced was the Winter of Hunger in the Holland. In 1944 people were starving and at war. Winter came with its harshness to create a tripled layered challenge. LH Lumly and other research scientists, wereimpressed by the meticulous records kept in Holland and accessed those records for her project. What they discovered is that the 2400 people studied and exposed to stress in fetal life have today as 60 year olds more health problems and a shorter predicted life span than those who were born immediately before or after the Winter of Hunger. Even as babies, their bodies evidenced health and stress difficulties. Cardiovascular disease, changed nervous systems, depression, psychiatric disorders, bio-polar disorder and anger issues were all more likely to be present in this cohort.
A further study of mothers of disabled children lead by Elizabeth Blackburn demonstrated that chronic stress ages a body. The continually stressful environment had the rough equivalent of for every year of tension the biological impact was to shorten life span by roughly six years.
The mechanism for this is in the chromosone caps which are called telemeres.
These telemere caps allow for repair and restoration and when they are eroded, the body can no longer reclaim damaged areas.
The women with disabled children were aging rapidly and the telemeres were shortening. The researcher was curious as to the possibility of reversal of the process. When she placed these women in a support group and the resultant social connectedness and sharing of black humour occurred, the telemeres began to repair. The “reserves that sustain us” was the terminology that describes the telemere function.
Another way that the researchers discovered that telemere function can be protected and reversed is through the development of a compassionate practice. Seeing another’s point of view, volunteering, seeing helping behaviors actually allow an individual to maintain his or her own health so they can mend the cellular damage.
The study began with Robert Sapolsky’s work on stress in a group of baboons that he studies for over three decades. He is considered the leading expert on the effect of stress in the neurological system. When he began the study, he discovered that the alpha males in the tribe had low stress indicators. The boss could attack female monkey, injure beta males and set the rules. Beta monkey and female’s stress levels were high with cardiovascular indicators and other damage. Robert was shocked and distressed when a local tourist camp garbage dump attracted the baboons and the alpha males all died from poisoning.
He believed that his study was compromised or ended. However, he was surprised to see that the beta males now set the tone for the social rules in the society. Prized were grooming activities, social networking, protection of the females and young. The mores changed. New young males that would naturally move into the tribe for purity of breeding purposes took a few months to go from the standard of aggressive interaction to the model of cooperation and caring. Surprisingly, the stress indicators in the entire group went down and all individuals were healthier.
The presence of alpha hierarchy, in corporate structure, in familial structure creates stress in all but the “boss” strata. The only way out of the denigration physically and neurologically that an individual can find is to establish an arena that he or she is the alpha individual. Robert suggested perhaps becoming the office coordinator of the volleyball team. The issue of a sense of control in the occupational hierarchy is, essentially a health and survival issue. To give people more justice in treatment, more rewards for their work will allow people to flourish.
The two magic bullets according to these researchers are social affiliation and compassionate practice. These two choices allow an individual to maintain a feeling of control, to lower stress, to protect or rebuild telemeres and live a life of creative energy.
We can learn much from Robert Sapolsky’s studies on a tribe of baboons. They are, after all, in our genetic family.