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What We Can Learn from Zebras about Stress

Laura (my wife) and I were having a conversation the other day about stress, worry and anxiety. I know—sounds exciting, doesn’t it? We were trying to get to the root issue as to why people, ourselves included at times, struggle under the weight of pressure.

Why do we toss and turn at night worrying about that meeting or our finances or the safety of our kids? Why do we allow fear to grip us when we think of all the tasks we have to get done today, and we don’t even know where to begin? Why does our throat tighten and our heart rate quicken when we know we’re about to step into a difficult conversation?

Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist at Stanford University where he studies how stress affects animals and humans. He wrote a fascinating book called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

His premise is that zebras don’t get ulcers because even though they have very real threats, the stress-response episode is here and gone in seconds. But we humans self-induce stress-response episodes that go on for minutes and even hours because of our imagination.

What we share with zebras (and other mammals) is a physiological response to threats. Our bodies are flooded with hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure in order to shoot more energy into our body. Thanks to the influx of cortisol, more sugar flows into our bloodstream that helps our brains think under pressure. When we feel threatened, our bodies also shut down other functions temporarily such as our digestive and reproductive systems. All of this happens so that in a moment of real threat, our bodies are “in the zone,” focused and ready for a fight-or-flight response.

But unlike zebras, our minds have a hard time distinguishing between real threats and imagined threats. Zebras don’t lie awake at night imagining a lion attacking tomorrow morning. Their brains and bodies relax and move into a normal range of function. But then when a real threat does occur—a lion jumps out from behind a bush—zebras immediately shift into a stress response. Once the threat is over (and assuming they weren’t eaten by the lion), they just as quickly shift back into normal-function mode.

We’re the only creatures on God’s green earth who are capable of feeling threated all the time. We can imagine a threat, and just based on our imagination, our brains and bodies can jump into a stress-response mode leading to panic attacks, increased heart rate, and even irrational behavior.

If you’ve ever “been-there-done-that,” here are few suggestions. First, understand what is happening. Is the threat real or imagined? If a car is coming toward you in your lane, the threat is real, and you need to react. But if you are only imagining a car coming toward you in your lane, the current threat is not real, and you can let your brain and body relax.

Second, for that to occur, however, you need to be able to stop, count to ten, and pray. Develop disciplines or practices that help you “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Third, don’t try to go through this alone. Jesus teaches us not to worry about our lives (Matthew 6:25), but sometimes we need others to help us learn how. Seek out Christian community and counseling to give you the support and tools needed.

Isn’t it amazing how God created zebras to react with urgency to real threats but not to stay in perpetual fight-or-flight mode? Jesus says we can take our lessons from the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26). Maybe we can learn from zebras as well.

Posted by Rick Grover, Lead Pastor with