Thursday, May 19, 2011

Movie Review - Stress: Portrait of a Killer

This week at work my fellow co-workers and I started talking about stress. How interesting it is, with all of the things it does to you, your body, your life in general. It's an epidemic that we all know about, yet we are never able to break free of it's grasp, even knowing the horrible things it can do to us.

Where I work there is such a thing as a Stress Leave of Absence. Yes, a break from work because work might just in fact be killing you. That tells you something about my day life, doesn't it?

We all know stress is bad for us, but how bad is it really? And where does it stem from? I happened to have recently seen a documentary on it called Stress: Portrait of a Killer, that answers those very questions. The documentary is based on research by various professors, but one in particular named Robert Sapolsky. He has been studying baboon behaviors for over three decades and has made many interesting discoveries, one more so than the others.

The normal indicators of stress are of course work, peer, and relationship pressure. Each one having their own measurable effects on us, yet work stress seeming to be the most disastrous of all for our health.

Think about it. How many of you fear going into work every day? Or are afraid of your boss and what they might throw at you next? You don't even have to be in the office to start feeling stress itself creeping up on you, giving you a headache, making your shoulders hunch up and hurt. It turns out that the most stressed people in the world are those that are the workers, while the least stressed people are those that are the ones who make the decisions, or the bosses. Your hierarchy in the company you work for directly affects how stressed out you'll be. The higher up you are, the better, while the lower down you are, the worse off you'll be. The workers are the ones that have to make the ideas and goals of a company happen, the ideas that the bosses are constantly thinking up. There is a big difference between an idea and making that idea happen in a day to day setting.

Not only does stress cause heart attacks, anxiety, depression and insomnia, there is also a direct link between stress and belly fat. That little pudge around your midsection is not because you are somehow doing your crunches wrong. No, your body purposely stores fat there when you get stressed out. The problem with our society, America to be specific, is that we do not value things that are stress relieving.

In most of Europe they eat dinner together as a family still, which takes a good two hours at least to wind down and relax. They have mid-day breaks for tea, naps, or just extra long lunches. They value sitting back and taking their time at a lot of things we rush through. This is just one of the many, many reasons I love Europe. In the good old US of A we admire the people who can multitask, who can get more done with less, who basically run themselves into the ground. We do not value those who take the time to stop and smell the flowers. In fact, we think they're lazy.

What Professor Sapolsky found was that stress actually affects us long before we see the signs of it. That ulcer you have- it didn't just happen over night. It's been building up in your poor little body for a very, very long time. That's why, when you do finally have something happen, it's a long road back to a healthy you. The very interesting thing that he discovered about stress, however, was accidental.
He had been studying this one group of baboons for years and one year when he went back to spend some time with them he found that many of them had died as they had found rotten meat in a trash can near their habitat. However, only the leaders of the pack - the bosses - ended up dying. The workers had no chance of getting any food as the bosses were, of course, in charge and kept them back while they pigged out. They had no idea their selfishness was actually saving the lives of the others.

Professor Sapolsky thought his research would end with that one group due to the deaths. What a surprise to him to find years later that the baboon group of workers, who had survived, were thriving and happy. Happy! All the years prior the workers showed symptoms of intense stress, unhappiness, anger at being at the bottom of the ladder. Now they all work together in the habitat, fight less, and appear to have very limited stress. They are essentially doing better than they ever did with the head honchos bossing them around.


I'm not saying we all go poison our bosses food, no, no. I'm just saying how interesting that nature took care of itself like that and all the workers are just fine. Better, actually. How very interesting indeed.

The most important thing to take away from this, other than Professor Sapolsky's awesome 60's hairdo, is that if our culture wants to shift, wants to escape the unnecessary aches and pains of stress, we must change what we value. We must learn to let things go. Learn to understand that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, will all have new tasks with new things to do. Work has no ending. It will always be there which means there is no point in ruining ourselves for something that is going to change next month anyway.

The trick is getting our bosses to agree, but, we can do it. I would say that anyone reading this is someone who has an increased sense of awareness. There are more and more of us springing up all over the place and we can make a difference. My old boss was open minded enough to hear me out on yoga. Then he let me talk about life coaching, then nutrition, and before you know it I found out he was just like me. I would never have known that if I hadn't tried to be myself and believe what I believe, without holding back for fear that the corporate world would judge me. I fully believe there are people just like that all over, but the work place as we know it has taught us to be boring, to blend in, to be "just like everyone else" so we can be accepted. I say let's shake that idea up. Poisoning them is not an option- I repeat, not an option, but we can help them to see other ways.

Most importantly, take it upon yourself to slow down. This is my Be the Best theory. You take care of you, first and foremost. Leave work when you're supposed to. Sleep in on the weekends. Take some deep breaths and let the world slip away. You can be an amazing multi-tasker as well as an amazing  meditator, an amazing nap taker, an amazing slower paced you. The fact of the matter is your overall health and well being does, indeed, depend on it. You are in control of your destiny. Make it a beautiful, stress free one.

What stresses you out?

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