Stress is a complex phenomenon that, often times, gets attributed to an abstract concept that is unavoidable in this day in age. I watched a documentary put forth by National Geographic made in 2008, that took a look at the evolution, causes, and effects of stress to provide a real portrait at what stress can do to our bodies. “Stress: The Portrait of a Killer” intrigued me as a bioanthropologist and as a doula, working with women dealing daily with the stress of pregnancy and motherhood.
Under stress, two hormones are released: adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and glucocorticoids. These two stress hormones are crucial to survival in the wild. Released from the adrenal gland, they increase lung capacity, raise blood pressure (to get blood quickly flowing to vital organs), and shut down other maintenance functions the body performs while the stress hormones are in the bloodstream. These functions are great if you are running away from death, but are proven to be damaging when the body is under constant stress that does not let up.
The film introduces Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist that has been researching baboons in east Africa for the last 30 years and Professor Sir Michael Marmot who has been leading a study of 28,000 people over 40 years in London. These studies produced virtually identical findings – increased heart disease, sick days, and poorer health among lower ranks who experience more stress.
The studies of primates and CEO’s was fascinating, but the part of the film that really resonated with me was a group of women raising children with chronic disabilities. They would meet weekly and share the challenges they were all going through individually and together. Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn heard about the meetings and went to work with this group of women. She studies chromosomes. At the end of each of our 46 chromosomes, there are “end caps” called telomeres that shorten under serious stress. Blackburn also talked about an enzyme, telomerase that can repair the damage. This enzyme gets activated with a meeting of minds and laughter. Humor, compassion, and caring for others can release this enzyme that reduces stress and promotes longevity.
This is key. As a birth and postpartum doula working with women and families from different backgrounds, I have encountered incredibly stressful situations. The best aid I could offer was getting them together, or even getting together one on one with these strong women and talking about the challenges and hope and help we all face every day. This is transformative: community is crucial. Compassion and caring come from building each other up, and sharing our laughter and tears.
I gained an important perspective on science and society in this film. If we work together and care, focusing on building each other up rather than hurting each other, there are detectable enzymes that reverse the effects of chronic stress and can increase our lifespan. These studies of primates, civil workers, mothers, brains, nerves, blood, and chromosomes are discovering tools that can help us work toward the continuation of societal well-being. We have a “threat of hope” and I hope we never lose it. So laugh, connect, and reach out for help when you need it. I will be working toward increasing laughter and love, decreasing fear and stress, and having faith that we will all work toward a family and therefore society that earnestly defends compassion and our sense of responsibility as a community.
Image Credit: Infinity Photography Hawaii