Stress: The Portrait of a killer Essay

The scientific documentary stress: portrait of a killer by Sapolsky and the genius Stanford University neurobiologist, MacArthur makes an all important finding that the body reacts spontaneously to stress. When one is stressed, the body shuts down all important systems, which include the immune system, and prevents any attempts of the body to repair cells. Moreover, stress results in increased hormone flow that may damage blood vessels, increase plaque in the blood arteries, resulting in blood pressure and resistance to blood flow. The research brings out the serious ramifications brought about by stress. Stress may lead to damaged brain cells, mostly affecting the hippocampus, and important brain sections responsible for learning and memory. This means stress badly affects ones emery and impairs their learning abilities. Moreover, the study while studying baboons that were found to react much the same with hums in stressful situations revealed that stress is directly related to social hierarchy. In other words, hierarchy as a social construct determiners the level of stress in an individual. The position of an individual in a hierarchy has a relation to the risk of diseases and the length of life of such individual. However, high levels of stresses as the documentary narrates are essential incases where on has to save their lives from predators. All the same, individuals currently cannot turn such stressing hormones offer, implying they have to continue fighting with corrosive hormones triggered by stressing situations. This is what has led to numerous cardiovascular related diseases, and reduced life span of individuals.

Sapolsky in the documentary features various studies that have been carried out over the time to support his findings; which bring about many similarities between such studies and his research findings. One of the studies by Blackburn et al (573) explains that clinical psychological stress is major factor in many ageing diseases. Stress appraisal determines the type and degree for biological stress appraisals, and responses which according to the study are the psychological mechanisms that link diseases of aging and the biological stresses. In the study, chronically stressed female care givers and non-care giving group as a control group were exposed to an acute laboratory stressor, and their anticipatory challenge and threat appraisal measured. The caregivers portrayed an indirect difference in the telomere length, which is the measure of aging through anticipatory threat appraisals. This means such anticipatory appraisals contribute to a mechanism of psychological stress effects on aging of cells. These findings are in line with Sapolsky‘s findings that stress levels may prevent the body from repairing itself, which leads to faster aging.

Moreover, the documentary utilizes the detailed work of Marmot, a renowned epidemiologist. Marmot carried out major research studies on stress levels among Britain civil servants. In this study, Marmot revealed that the lower the status of a civil servant the higher the risk of cardiovascular diseases. This as Marmot explains may be as a result of metabolic syndrome related to lipid disturbance, which result from insulin resistance. Much of the risk is mediated by metabolic syndrome and plasma fibrinogen. Moreover, low control of an employee as Marmot found out was responsible for increased stress levels in civil servants (Rivett, 2007). Individuals at lower ranks in the job structure may not have any control of their activities, but depend on their superiors on the hierarchy to disseminated orders that have to be followed. The lack of control in making decisions according to Marmot is therefore responsible for increased stress levels, and the respective heart diseases. Sapolsky uses these findings in supporting his argument that baboons on the lower social hierarchy proved to have high stress levels, and lived much less compared to those on the higher social hierarchy. This may be explained by the fact that baboons in a higher hierarchy are at much lower risk of predation due to their control compared to the weaker baboons at the lower ranks, whose fears and subordination increases stress levels.

Sapolsky highlights the research by Dr. Carol Shivey of Wake University. Shivey in a research study revealed that the cardiovascular system in humans is negatively affected by stress, which leads it to increased cases of atherosclerosis. This increases the heart attack rates in individuals. Shivey further expounds that stressed individuals will tend to concentrate fat deposits around their abdominal area, which is major health risk. Shivel relates increased stresses and fat accumulation to the increasing obesity cases globally, which is a global epidemic. Shively in the film also articulates the role of pleasure in stress reduction. Dopamine is a hormone whose concentration in the blood is affected by stress levels, with less stressed people portraying more dopamine compared to the more stressed people. In other words, a brain scanning image portrayed subordinate monkeys to have a dull brain, while the dominant ones had much lighter brains. The dull brain portrays increased stress levels. Sapolsky also uses the study by Rosseboom regarding the 1944 Dutch Hunger. Rosseboom in a study of the effects of famine stress on fetal development in women who survived the famine remarks that the damage caused by the famine is still there more than 60 years after. Therefore, stress experienced by such individuals at their fetal stage affected the people, with many of them today being at higher risk of heart diseases, higher cholesterol levels, among other cardiovascular diseases. Stress hormones from their mother’s blood Rosseboom indicates affected such fetal nervous system as they tried to survive the starvation. Consequently, prolonged stress build up results in serious effects not only to an individual, but to their children particularly in pregnant mothers.

Sapolsky in the documentary highlights the tragedy in Maasai Mara in Kenya, where dominant and aggressive baboons contacted TB believed to be from food left by tourists. The epidemic swept away the entire dominant male class, and resulted to a major change in the baboons’ troop. As the dominant baboons with much less stress levels were wiped out, they left the subordinates with higher stress levels to take charge of the troop. Therefore, the high stress levels among the baboons at the lower hierarchy gradually reduced, resulting in a decreased in stress related diseases among the troop. This was because, the group’s hierarchy was greatly weakened to become less hierarchical; there was much less fear and threats among the remaining baboons. Sharing and grooming was a new trend that resulted in reduced stress cases, and more healthy baboons. Therefore, culture has a huge impact on individual’s stress levels.

Sapolsky in the documentary offers various ways in which individuals may reduce stresses and prevent such life threatening diseases caused by increased stressful conditions. Body relaxing activities such as Yoga are a great way in which individuals may reduce stresses as a self-care mechanism. Moreover facials, massages and other body care services help the body to relax and facilitate smooth flow of blood. Other stress minimizing activities include fun and healthy social interactions with peers, deep breathing when faced with a stressful situation, taking stroll in nature, and reading for fun. Having increased self-control helps in reducing stress levels; one is able to make decisions and affect them, rather than depend on commands and orders. This as Marmot explains in the documentary facilitates both learning and enhanced memory abilities. Any activity that triggers a relaxation response would be essential in reducing stress in humans. Such attributes as self-confidence, being actively involved in productive and fan activities, or doing anything that one enjoys are also methods that can be used to reduce stress in humans. In order to implement such stress reducing activities, sensitization through various media, and public health based meetings may help in passing the message to the community. Such stress reduction and control methods should also be introduced in all Schools at all levels of study, to create a well-informed population from the basic levels of education.

The film was very helpful and an eye opener in our daily activities. The documentary deals particularly with our daily activities, and how these activities define and impact on us. For example, in the work place, the film is of critical importance in etching individual how they can cope with the stressful conditions imposed by their hierarchy levels. Since stressing precursors may not be done away with completely, the film prepares individuals on how best to react in case one is exposed to such stresses. Moreover, through the film, it clear that having a good level of confidence, self-control and autonomy to do what one finds joy in may be a great way to alleviating stressful conditions. People have also to establish and nurture healthy social interactions and mutual sharing where they can mediate on problems of one another. As the film portrays, effective social groups and interaction help in sharing the stress burden in many people, especially for those in subordinate levels. Being involved in extensive much exercises, reading for fun, and taking a stroll in nature as the film indicates are simple activities that may be embraced to result in healthy life away from stresses as they stimulate the mind and lead to relaxation. The film findings are in agreement with many research studies on social interactions and stress reduction. However, the film raises the question whether the patterns observed in baboons and other non-human primates have the same ramifications on humans. This means though Saposlky heavily utilizes biologists and neurologists findings to support his ideas, there should be detailed research studies that tie the findings of studies carried out on non-human primates with research studies on humans, to have a better understanding of the actual effects of stress on humans.

Work Cited

  • Blackburn E.H., et al. Stress appraisals and cellular aging: a key role for anticipatory threat in the relationship between psychological stress and telomere length, Brain Behavior Immunology, 26.4(2012), 573-579.
  • Rivett Geoffrey, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, National Health Service History, 2007
    Sapolsky M. Robert. Dir. Stress – Portrait of a Killer, National Geographic 2008, Film
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Stress: The Portrait of a killer. (December 17, 2020).
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