Thursday, January 13, 2011

therapy thursday: think like a zebra

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this before, but I am currently earning a second bachelors degree, this time in psychology. I should be done this summer and plan to enroll in a graduate program this fall. I have thought about starting Therapy Thursday for awhile now as a why to share all the interesting/compelling/enlightening/"ah ha" knowledge I am gaining from my psych classes, which are never dull or lacking in insights about the human mind.

So I have decided to start Therapy Thursday on a topic we are all familiar with: stress. Currently, I am reading a book by Robert Sapolsky titled Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. It's true, zebras don't get ulcers. Why not? Because the life of a zebra is simple. They don't worry about being a good zebra, or material things, or what the other zebras think of them, or the amount of work piled on their desks. Sure there is the occasional threat of being eaten by a lion, but a zebra is only stressed for a limited amount of time - until they have outrun the lion or been eaten by it. But a zebra doesn't live in constant fear of being eaten by a lion. It can't think that far ahead. It is just a zebra.


As humans, we are blessed with a large brain, which also aids to our demise. We are ridiculously complex animals, and because of our high brain function, we have the ability to stress about everything. When you are stressed, your body prepares itself to fight or flee the stressor by releasing hormones, including cortisol, which increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system, and aids in metabolism; and norepinephrine, which triggers your fight-or-flight response by increasing heart rate, tapping into energy stores, and increasing blood flow to your muscles. In acute doses, stress is healthy for the body. However, chronic stress is responsible for many health problems that humans suffer from daily, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), digestive issues, depression, chronic fatigue, and even ulcers.

When your body is stressed, not only does it release stress hormones to aid the body in fight-or-flight, but it depletes other bodily systems, such as the digestive system, of energy because your body needs all the energy it can get to fight or flee the threat or stress you are facing. Think about the zebra, if it's being chased by a lion, it does not need to stay "regular" at that moment, so digestion is stopped in order to use that energy to run like hell from that hungry lion. The same is true for humans. If you experience diarrhea or constipation, think first about what you had for lunch and then think about your stress level.

If cortisol is produced in high doses it can stunt your growth, affect your insulin levels, weaken your immune system, shut down your reproductive system, increase blood pressure, and affect your memory. Too much norepinephrine can lead to anxiety, depression, or aggression.

Stress affects people in many different ways, but the bottom line is too much stress is never a good thing. Humans live in a constant state of fear - Am I too fat?; Will I finish all this work?; Can I pay my bills next month? Am I a good person? And stress is just fear. What are we so afraid of? The zebra's only fear is becoming lion lunch, and a zebra only worries about the lion when it sees the lion. The rest of the time it's just a zebra. Recognizing your fears and facing them, or simply re-prioritizing your life, can help to reduce your stress, and ultimately, keep you healthy.

Try this: Each week make a to-do list of the top 10 things (if you have 10) that you need or want to get accomplished that week (outside of work obligations). Stick to 10, and everything else you accomplish that week is just a bonus. Be sure to include at least one thing you want to do for yourself (get a massage, paint your nails, stop by your favorite store to see the latest looks, grab a drink with a girlfriend, etc.) that you have put off because of other items on your growing to-do list. This will help you prioritize your life, stay focused on what's important each week, and maintain some sense of sanity. We're all busy, so why put so much pressure on ourselves to cross off every item on our to-do list in one week? It's not reasonable and only sets us up for failure. I mean, seriously, when have you ever gotten a congratulations for making it to the grocery store when you said you would? So be realistic when making your top 10 to-do list each week, and set yourself up for success. Trust me, it will feel good.

And think like a zebra for goodness sake. Don't panic if you didn't get the bed made today. In the grand scheme of life, making the bed is not worth sacrificing your health or sanity. Don't sweat the small stuff (there are plenty of big things that need your attention), and ignore that obnoxious quote about not putting off until tomorrow what you could get done today. Today, do something for you. To hell with making the bed.


Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean said...

love this post!

Emily said...

Awesome! My mom actually was just diagnosed with hyperthyroidism because of years of not handling stress well. It really does happen! In the Dale Carnegie course I took (and GA'd) he says: "live in day tight compartments." Which is pretty much like living like a zebra because zebra's can only think one day at a time! So true!

Brittany said...

Great post!! I have way to much stress. What if your job is high stress? I've always had a problem with separating work (teaching) with my life at home.

Stephanie the PW said...

For the love of EVERYONE, please please PLEASE be a therapist and help people out with stress! Great blog post , Holly! I'm one of those lucky ducks that suffers from stomach issues when I'm freaked out - when that happens, I know it's time to take a seriously huge chill pill and do something special for *me*. Everything fixes itself and I'm back to normal in no time... well, until the next stressor strikes!

Have a great weekend!

Joel and Cindy said...

I think you jumped into my head. WOW. I'm going to start my Top Ten List this week! I can't wait!

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