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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping

By Robert M. Sapolsky
19-minute read
Audio available
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping by Robert M. Sapolsky

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (1994) vividly explains the biology behind stress and its impact on our lives, functioning as an effective way to deal with immediate problems, while also posing serious health risks in the long run. The author also offers plenty of practical tips on how to keep stress under control.

  • Anyone who feels stressed
  • People interested in the ways society impacts our stress levels
  • Anyone curious about how the mind and the body are interconnected

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, a leading stress researcher and a regular contributor to the magazines Discover and The Sciences. He is also a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and is the author of A Primate’s Memoir and The Trouble With Testosterone.

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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping

By Robert M. Sapolsky
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping by Robert M. Sapolsky
Synopsis

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (1994) vividly explains the biology behind stress and its impact on our lives, functioning as an effective way to deal with immediate problems, while also posing serious health risks in the long run. The author also offers plenty of practical tips on how to keep stress under control.

Key idea 1 of 12

Stress originates as a response to acute physical crises, but humans stress over imaginary things, too.

It’s two in the morning and you can’t sleep, despite the fact that you have to deliver a career-defining presentation tomorrow morning. You’re just too stressed out! Situations like this one are central to the human experience. But why do we feel stress at all?

Looking at the rest of the animal kingdom, we find that stress responses are activated by physical danger and risk. Imagine being a zebra on the savannah: the most stressful thing you could experience is fleeing the jaws of a lion while half your leg is ripped open. Or, if you’re the lion, the stress would come from chasing a zebra while close to starvation.

Both these situations, while different, are crises that need to be dealt with immediately to ensure survival.

Some animals also deal with chronic physical stress. Imagine, for example, having to walk dozens of miles every day in order to find food or water.

For humans, however, the biggest source of stress is often psychological – stress that we simply conjure up in our own heads.

Consider situations like traffic jams, upcoming deadlines, not finding a parking spot or tense arguments with family or loved ones. None of these situations require extraordinary physical activity, as they’re rarely settled with fistfights or narrow escapes.

Nonetheless, they generate stress in our minds.

Humans also get stressed out about things that might happen in the future. For example, people worry about their mortgage, upcoming job interviews, their retirement funds – you name it.

This makes sense when we have an opportunity to mobilize a plan to deal with these stressors, but it’s pointless when we’re unable to affect the situation that causes our worrying.

So, from an evolutionary perspective, sustained psychological stress is a very recent phenomenon.

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