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A Stress Response

A stress response is found in all mammals. So why, asks neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky (2004), don’t zebras get ulcers? Sapolsky notes that the physiological stress response is superbly designed through evolution to help animals mobilize to fight or escape in acute emergencies. For the zebra, this occurs when a hungry lion leaps out from a bush and sprints at top speed across the savanna. For humans, it occurs during combat or competitive sports and perhaps even on first dates and in job interviews. But think about the list of situations you find stressful, and you’ll see that people become anxious over things that would make no sense to a zebra. “We humans live well enough and long enough, and are smart enough, to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads,” says Sapolsky. From the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, he notes, psychological stress is a “recent invention”. The reason stress causes ulcers and other illnesses, then, is that the response is designed for acute physical emergencies, yet we turn it on often and for prolonged periods of time as we worry about taxes, mortgages, oral presentations, the job market, marital problems, and the inevitability of death.

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All humans respond bodily to stress, which is what enables us to mount a defense. Physiologically, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and more adrenaline is secreted, which increases the heart rate and heightens arousal. Then all at once, the liver pours extra sugar into the bloodstream for energy, the pupils dilate to let in more light, breathing speeds up for more oxygen, perspiration increases to cool down the body, blood clots faster to heal wounds, saliva flow is inhibited, and digestion slows down to divert blood to the brain and skeletal muscles. Faced with threat, the body readies itself for action. But what, behaviorally, is the nature of the defense?

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