Stress and Sickness

"If you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

- Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Sapolsky describes human behavior, and the underlying neurobiology of stress, in such an accessible way that I will be quoting him frequently in this, and other posts.

He also has a beard that is truly epic. But that is besides the point.

In a 2007 Stanford Report article, Sapolsky states:

"There are now studies showing that chromosomal DNA aging accelerates in young, healthy humans who experience something incredibly psychologically stressful. That's a huge finding."

Huge belies just how massive this finding truly is to our understanding of stress. Perhaps while watching the news of some terrible event involving young children, you’ve heard a term such as:

  • Lost innocence.

  • Aged years in just a few months.

  • Never quite the same anymore.

These phrases are eerily prophetic of the research into stress, and how it is, quite literally, speeding us along to the grave.

This is especially evident in young people today. This population does not have enough varied life experiences to also withstand the skewing effects of chronic stress.

Adults have a hard enough time handling stress, and students must deal with chronic stress, get good grades, do their extracurriculars, prep for college entrance exams, complete their volunteer hours, and navigate a social life. This is why suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds.

I will repeat that:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds.

Sapolsky said, “we are smart enough to make ourselves sick,” but, he adds encouragingly, “The same things that make us smart enough to generate the kind of psychological stress that's unheard of in other primates can be the same things that can protect us. We are malleable."

I am most interested in the malleability of our minds, and though we may not be able to control how our stress response is wired, maybe, if we are smart enough, we can train ourselves to respond in a healthier manner when confronted with psychological stressors.