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Released November 13, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS FORUM SPEAKER: ABILITY TO MANAGE,
COPE WITH STRESS DETERMINES QUALITY OF HEALTH

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG - A popular cartoon depicts a zebra with a stunned expression on its face as its stripes fall from its body to the ground, to which the zebra exclaims, "I think it's stress."

While this scene is humorous in its impossibility and commentary on a contemporary issue, the chance of a zebra suffering from stress in the way a human does is as unlikely as the loss of its stripes.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, in his presentation Tuesday at The University of Southern Mississippi's final forum of the 2003 fall semester, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease and Coping," said that humans have the same stress responses that many animals do, but that people respond for psychological reasons.

Animals, on the other hand, typically respond to life-and-death situations in a stressful manner, but once the threat is diminished or eliminated, the stress subsides.

"We do it for 30-year mortgages," he said of the human response to stress, and that in today's society it's considered the cause for a variety of diseases and disorders.

He said for some, stress is a way of life. "Every day is an emergency," he said.

"The stress response becomes more damaging than the stressor (cause of stress). You do it (stress out) chronically, and you get sick."

Some of the top diseases that kill Americans today, including heart disease, have been connected with stress. About 100 years ago, heart disease was not even in the top five causes of death, he said, falling behind flu, tuberculosis, and childbirth, among others, Sapolsky said. Sedentary lifestyles have also led to an alarming number of cases of adult onset diabetes, he said, which can also be caused and worsened by stress.

"We die today of bizarre diseases that no one used to die with," he said.

Stress has also been determined as a factor in some cases of dwarfism, when children suffer from such extreme cases of stress that it diminishes their growth hormone. This syndrome has been found in children who live in war zones or in countries where civil strife exists, as well as victims of child abuse.

Other health problems connected to stress include hypertension, depression and ulcers.

The ability of a person to adapt and cope with stress can determine his or her ability to reduce his or her risk of contracting stress-related health problems and maintain a state of stable equilibrium, or homeostasis, Sapolsky said. He cited the importance of having outlets for relieving stress, such as a social support system or participating in exercise or other recreational activities, as crucial to safeguarding one's physical and mental health.

Tim Walker, a Southern Miss freshman from Biloxi, said Sapolsky's presentation opened his eyes to the far-reaching impact of stress on humans. "I didn't realize how much of an impact stress could have on one's health," he said.

Dr. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya. As a boy growing up in New York City, Sapolsky wanted to live in one of the dioramas at the city's Museum of Natural History. One week after graduating from Harvard, he realized this dream, but on an even grander scale: He went to Kenya to study the social behavior in baboons, which culminated in his award-winning book, A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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