Stress: Portrait of a Killer | Notes & Review

Posted on November 21, 2010


Available on Instant for Netflix.

While stress is a natural response, we humans are unable to turn it off. This keeps us wallowing in a corrosive bath of hormones. After a while, the stress response is more damaging than the actual stressor itself.

Hierarchy, a social construct, is a key factor in how much stress a human being experiences. Your position in the hierarchy is intimately related to your risk of disease and length of life.

So, what’s happening at the cellular level? When stressed, the body begins to shut down all unnecessary systems, including the immune system. It wipes out the ability of your body to repair itself.

Stress, and the increased flow of hormones, damages blood vessels and increases plaque in the arteries, which in turn increases blood pressure and restricted blood flow.

Stress can also damage brain cells. Most interesting, it is happening in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In other words, “stress makes you stupid.”

Not only is hierarchy a factor, but the feeling of low-rank can induce the same results. And society is really good at making you feel that way.

There is also a link between stress and how you put on weight. The distribution of that weight, around the middle of the torso, is an indicator of rank in the hierarchy and the stress one experiences. Could stress be a significant factor in the global obesity epidemic? And, this is dangerous fat.

We don’t value stress reduction. We value the opposite. We have to change our values and become people who value a more balanced and serene life.

Through a study done in Holland, we see stress affecting a person in utero that greatly affects the fetus and for the rest of that person’s life.

Stress, by way of stress hormones, can accelerate the shortening telomeres, the things that keep our genes from fraying. In other words, someone who experiences a great deal of chronic stress in 1 year, ages 6. The length of the telomeres directly relates to the amount of stress someone is under, and the number of years they’ve been under that stress. This is real medical aging.


Telomerase is an enzyme that repairs the telomeres protecting our DNA. A meeting of minds, people who share the same stress, may have a healing effect.

It appears that compassion and caring for others may be one of the most important ingredients that reduce stress and increases telomerase. Those may be the factors that keep us rejuvenating and regenerating. So, perhaps connecting with and helping others can help us mend ourselves, and maybe even live longer and healthier lives.

This lowering of stress could have a dramatic impact in society as well. In other words, it’s not just your rank, it’s what your rank means to your society.

So, one antidote to stress may be finding a place where we have control. The conditions in which people live and work is absolutely vital to their health as this affects what kind of control one has over their lives. When people have more control, things at work get better, and illness goes down. Give people more involvement, more say, more reward, and it might well be you might not have just a more healthy work place, but a more productive work place as well. People want to feel empowered.

So, what have we learned? Don’t bite someone just because you’re having a bad day. Don’t displace on someone in any manner. Social affiliation is a remarkably powerful thing. And,

One of the greatest forms of sociality is giving rather than receiving.

And, if baboons can change their social systems in one generation, there is no excuse for us.

For more information about stress and Robert Sapolsky — including clips from the documentary, a video Q+A, links to podcasts, books and more experts on stress — visit the film’s Web site at

Find out how much you know about stress. Take the National Geographic Stress Quiz.

Killer Stress was co-produced by Stanford University and National Geographic Television. The partnership is the first of its kind in the country and features a major research university joining forces with a distinguished production and educational institution to create original and compelling programming in the areas of science and technology for television audiences.

— VIA —

Brilliant. Once again, a convergence of faith, values, ethics, and science. Let us love and embrace this harmony.