Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special

Wed, 09/24/2008 - 8:00pm

A stressful moment

Adrian Coakley; ©2008 National Geographic

Stress. In the beginning it saved our lives. It’s what made us run from predators and enabled us to take down prey. Today, humans are turning on that same life-saving stress response to cope with 30-year mortgages, four-dollar-a-gallon gas, difficult bosses and traffic jams — and we can’t seem to turn it off. As a result, we are constantly marinating in corrosive hormones triggered by the stress response. Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special airs Wednesday, September 24 at 8 p.m on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Now, scientists are showing just how measurable and dangerous prolonged exposure to stress can be. Stanford University neurobiologist, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, and renowned author Robert Sapolsky and National Geographic reveal new answers to why and how stress is killing us.

Throughout the film, discoveries occur in an extraordinary range of places: with baboon troops on the plains of East Africa, in office cubes of government bureaucrats in London, and in neuroscience labs at the nation’s leading research universities. In each location, scientists are discovering how stress works and how lethal it can be. Years of ground-breaking research by multiple scientists are revealing surprising facts about the impact of stress: it can shrink our brains, add fat to our bellies, even unravel our chromosomes. Yet, understanding how stress works can help us figure out ways to combat it and how to live a life free of this present-day plague.

For three decades, Sapolsky has been advancing our understanding of stress, in particular how our social standing can make us more or less susceptible. Along with scientists from the University of North Carolina, the University of London, Rockefeller University and the University of California, San Francisco, Sapolsky is part of a group of cutting-edge researchers whose collective work now gives stress a new relevance.

Throughout the film, Sapolsky weaves the grim reality of the impact of chronic stress with his wry observations about life. Describing one of his most intriguing early findings, he says, “Chronic stress could do something as unsubtle and grotesque as kill some of your brain cells.”

“The reality is I am unbelievably stressed and Type A and poorly coping, and why else would I study this stuff 80 hours a week? No doubt everything I advise is going to lose all its credibility if I keel over dead from a heart attack in my early 50s. I am not good at dealing with stress. But one thing that works to my advantage is I love my work, I love every aspect of it,” he says.