5 Things Zebras Can Teach Us About Fighting Stress

We can learn from certain animals who have adapted to living under pressure.


We can learn from certain animals who have adapted to living under pressure.

We can learn from certain animals who have adapted to living under pressure.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers*, a highly acclaimed guide to stress (for humans), Dr. Robert Sapolsky speaks about the latest discoveries in the field of stress physiology. From this wise and witty offering, scientists and nonscientists alike can learn the ways in which chronic stress – the twenty first century’s black plague – has become one of the leading proximal causes of death, leading to strokes and heart attacks along with a variety of other sub-optimal outcomes, from decreased immunity to insomnia, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, heart disease, and serious memory loss.

But there’s good news too. We can also discover the ways in which certain lucky critters – from lab rats and monkeys to our fellow human beings – have adapted to living marvelously well under pressure and avoided developing these afflictions, even in their old age! An exploration of how these lucky buggers cope can help us learn to take control of stress in our own lives.

According to Sapolsky, these lucky buggers tend to have the following in common:

1. An outlet for frustration
2. A sense of predictability
3. A feeling of control
4. An optimistic outlook 
5. Social support

If a tiny sarcastic voice in your head is grumbling, “Oh good, glad we’ve got those all sorted out,” remember this:

  • Knowing the destination is more than half the battle. The rest is one part perspective, and one part knowing how to get there.
  • Luckily, if you’ve been following the blog, reading Dr. Gottman’s books, or seeing a CGT (Certified Gottman Therapist), you’ve got some perspective, and already know a lot about how to get there.
  • Sapolsky’s ideas overlap significantly with GMCT (Gottman Method Couples Therapy). Particularly in the realm of stress and conflict mangement. So, dear reader, you and your wisdom are ahead of the curve!

Relationship problems can be a significant stressor, but our approach to love matters enormously. Believing that “Love is a battlefield,” or, even more dangerously, that “All’s fair in love and war” may not be the best strategy.

By approaching our relationships from a different perspective – with a desire to overcome challenges by working together – we may achieve a far more satisfying outcome.

When we consider the parallels between Dr. Sapolsky’s research and GMCT, this makes a fantastic amont of sense. In GMCT, problems are divided into solvableperpetual, and gridlocked. Getting a better feel for how our problems fit into these categories can help us enormously, as we can identify those we can solve easily and those we need to approach in a different way. While perpetual problems are clearly predictable, they don’t have to raise our blood pressure – we can use models like GMCT to reach mutual understanding.

When we truly listen to each other, we hold the key that unlocks potential in conflict discussions. We gain insights that grant us access to each other’s inner worlds, and also activate protective factors against illnesses caused by chronic stress. 

Your Weekend Homework Assignment:

This weekend, build emotional attraction through a heart-to-heart, stress-reducing conversation with your partner.

Actually understanding why we’re having the same arguments over and over can safeguard us from unnecessary stress, providing an enhanced sense of control and making room for a more optimistic outlook.

From this position, we may begin to see alternate ways to approach perpetual problems in the future. By building Love Maps, we learn about each other’s histories and potential triggers, so that the ways in which our words and actions affect each other become clear. We can predict what will happen. This is especially helpful in overcoming gridlock and stress from within our relationships.

Finally, the social support we give each other in a heart-to-heart is a true source of vitality – making an impact far beyond our in-the-moment emotional state. Rather than bottling up our frustration until we feel hopeless, helpless, and totally haywire (see: NSO), we can reach out to each other to gain access to those outlets, a feeling of control, and an enduring positive outlook.

When we feel truly seen, heard, and understood, we are soothed, lowering each other’s levels of stress hormones and cortisol, working together to weather any storm.

In this way, we can live and love, enjoying not only radically improved relationships, but longer, healthier, and happier lives.

*Why, indeed? As it turns out, stress triggers a fight-or-flight response in both zebras and humans. However, as zebras don’t usually worry about social and psychological stressors (like in-laws, the Middle East, dress sizes, or the stock market), and focus solely on physical stressors (like lions and twigs snapping suspiciously in the distance), they don’t suffer the same chronic activation of stress response we do. Our inability to turn off the stress-response is what gives us our highly evolved ability to be “worried sick.”

By: Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.