I love it when intelligent people make complicated things easy to understand. So when I saw the book titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by renowned Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, I was like a little kid in a candy shop. Ulcers? Zebras? I had to know more.
This catchy book title can be confusing, but it is soon cleared up in the tagline. It’s a guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping.
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It was fitting that I read this book during the seemingly endless and stressful pandemic lockdowns. Every page was soon covered with fluorescent highlighter strokes as I discovered idea after idea that rang true. Through Sapolsky’s work, I now have a new appreciation for how our bodies respond to modern stressors and their impact on our health (and waistlines).
A natural response
Imagine this scenario: You’re a deer grazing in a field. It’s a beautiful, nice, sunny day with no sign of any danger or threat.
You’re relaxed. Your muscles feel like butter. You chew grass, and your mind wanders to happier thoughts. In a flash, suddenly hear a twig snap twenty metres away in low brush. Every muscle in your body tightens in reflex. Your breathing becomes shallow, and your hearing sharpens until you hear your blood pumping rapidly through your veins. And, as quick as the twig snapped, your muscles began to jump like mini racehorses, prepared to dash. Finally, you hear a low rustle as if an animal is slowly stalking you, and you don’t wait around to see if you will be breakfast. Instead, you break into a fast run.
This is your animalistic survival stress response, and, like it or not, we all have it. And thankfully, we do because, without a physical system prepared to fight or flee to keep us alive, we would be extinct.
But here is the fun thing about that rush from perceived danger. When you stop to high-five your buddies and exclaim, “What a rush!” your heart calms down, and your body relaxes but then rebuilds to make you stronger.
Imagine doing that repeatedly, every day, a few times a day. While a little stress is actually a good thing, feeling like this day in and day out takes an immense toll on the body. Sounds like your daily life? It isn’t good for you in the long run.
As Sapolsky tells us, after a point, you slowly begin succumbing to stress instead of being invigorated by stress. This begins to degrade your health and increase the likeliness of disease.
This is your chronic stress response. We are the only animals on earth who are “smart enough to make themselves sick,” as Robert Sapolsky puts it. The book’s title basically says that zebras don’t get ulcers because they aren’t chronically stressed.
That lion creeping in the bushes was your boss with your looming deadline. Other threats could be the unpaid bills on the table, someone sick in the family, a rejected promotion, or the gruelling two-hour journey back home in heavy traffic.
Since these modern stressors don’t present as an immediate life or death moment (hopefully), it is easy to discount its effects as normal. However, I hope you notice that being in a constant hyped-up state will lead to the secret spread of stress-related issues.
Learning to let go
When applying this knowledge to my coaching practice, I noticed a polar opposition when speaking to clients about their stress. Those under acute stress found stress stimulating and challenging. Those worn down by chronic stress were exhausted and demotivated. And when people had a positive relationship with stress, their approach to dieting and fitness was very different from those who had a negative relationship.
Therefore, most of my clients would benefit from addressing their stress first, rather than their food. It’s not a lack of nutritional knowledge that cripples their efforts; it’s their stressful lifestyle. They might be drinking endless coffees and sugary drinks all day because they operate in a high-stress environment. They stuff their face with highly processed, convenience foods between meetings because they don’t “have time” to properly plan meals or have the mental capacity to make decisions about food. They may emotionally eat or drink on the couch at night because these dopamine hits are the fastest way to make them feel the teensiest bit better, even though they know they should work out instead. And, after a late night of binge-watching Netflix, restarting their day with endless coffees that incinerate their stomachs, the cycle continues.
More discipline and motivation will not solve the problem; self-awareness and developing self-compassion will. After all, why add more stress by changing things top-down rather than from the real cause of these behaviours? After all, weight loss doesn’t make people happier. It is the self-compassion that self-discovery can bring that does. Your relationship and approach to stress are part of that picture.
From my experience, clients who respond better to fitness and diet programmes prioritise their recovery, allowing them to adapt and respond to new pressures.
The challenge becomes how to get highly stressed clients to find their own “sweet spot”—where stress excites them rather than overwhelms them.
Adopting a new programme can make them feel like they must unravel the tight control they have over their lives to make space for wellness, making them feel more stressed. Our goal is to make them healthier and happier, not unbalanced, demoralised, and demotivated.
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One self-awareness activity is to do a stress assessment. In front of you are three buckets. One bucket is for all the things that stress you out that you can’t control. The second bucket is for all the items in your life stressing you out that you can control. And finally, the third bucket is for the things over which you have partial control. Go through each item in each bucket and sort through your stressors. You may notice that many things stressing you out end up in the “no control” bucket.
It may bring you peace and awareness—and the ability to let go of some of the stressors that are not serving you.
Ways to manage chronic stress
Set practical goals
Realistic but challenging goals, nothing out of reach.
Make changes slowly
Start with one action each day, and commit to it for two weeks.
Monitor how you feel
Watch how you feel over the next two weeks. Do you feel less stressed?
Take it easy
Focus on rest and recovery activities rather than hard and high-impact workouts
It boosts the immune system, improves sleep as well as emotional regulation
Ask for help when you need it.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach