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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

Last week my friend Andrea and I were giving a presentation to a local school who had come to visit mindyourmind.  We played the “Reach Out Game” and at one point a fact was highlighted saying that when your body is stressed it produces a chemical called cortisol which can lower your immune system. So great, when we’re stressed out we’re actually more prone to getting sick? How is that helpful?!

I learned about this a few years ago when my body started showing symptoms of severe stress through daily headaches and stomach problems. I tried everything to fix them from medication to acupuncture and eventually it was concluded that stress was behind my ailments. And you guessed it: the more I got stressed about my health problems, the worse they got. Wonderful.

Eventually I made my way to the library and found a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. It had a ton of information on the fight or flight response, which up until then I’d only heard about in science class. Zebras have predators like lions and literally do have to fight off the lion (bad idea, btw) or run for their lives so they don’t get eaten. Since I wasn’t a zebra in the jungle this confused me, but the book was written to help human beings (zebras can’t read!) so I persevered. Finally it was explained to me just why we humans are like zebras and how that applies to our stress levels today.

In the grand scheme of things, we are all basically animals. Think back to cavemen days: humans were a lot like zebras then. The biggest issues they dealt with were finding food and staying out of danger, which is just like a zebra’s life. Only now, our lives have evolved from being about basic survival to having stress of all kinds. We have exams to deal with, friends fighting at school, our parents on our backs – there is a lot of shit that stresses us out! Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t evolved much at all. They still perceive stress to be about survival. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, gets released when our minds perceive threat. It makes our hearts beat fast so our limbs have the energy to help us run from danger and we sweat so that our bodies can cool off while running. This zebra thing started to make sense to me, but I still didn’t know why my digestion was being affected by stress or why we’re more likely to get sick when we are stressed out.

Finally I figured it out: put yourself in a zebra headspace again. You are being chased by a lion and need to get out of there fast! So, like mentioned above, your body puts ALL its energy into helping you run. As far as that zebra’s body is concerned, it might not make it to SEE dinner because it is going to BE dinner for that lion! So it saves zero energy for its stomach to digest leaves later on. Same goes for our immune system. If our bodies think they have to run from danger, who cares about saving energy to fight off a cold that might be circulating tomorrow? Tomorrow is too far in the future for our bodies to worry about. Unfortunately, when tomorrow does roll around, our immune system has been sleeping and when our friend sneezes, those germs have no barriers when it comes to infecting us.

So the next time you get sick at school, blame your teacher for stressing you out with that test! They might not be smart enough to follow your zebra line of thinking but you’ll know you’re right! This also teaches us just why we need to take extra care of our bodies when we are stressed out. Put on that scarf, go to bed early. Your body will thank you!

One last thing I learned: you know the expression, “I was so scared I almost shit my pants?” Zebras poop when they are running from lions because it will make them lighter so they can run faster. So the next time you have to go to the bathroom right before a test or a big game, your body might be giving you the runs in order for you to run faster from that lion. So now you know!