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From Vol. 1, Issue 6, June 2019

Fight stress and improve health

Stoic Reflections || MEREDITH KUNZ

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Competing to prove ourselves 

Many of us feel under stress, facing competition to “succeed” in a society increasingly divided into winners and losers in terms of economics and social status. To me, much of Stoic practice is about unwinding this deeply-rooted impulse to compete and prove ourselves superior, and to cope with the emotions we feel about status. 

Learning from baboons 

The work of Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor, helps to explain how very important this issue is. Understanding what he has uncovered about stress and society can help us find a new path forward both as individuals and as a culture—one that strongly resonates with Stoic practices. 

Sapolsky has spent much of his career studying baboons in Africa. Baboons have a strict social hierarchy. Sapolsky discovered that male baboons with low social status, who were picked on and attacked by other males, were suffering from high levels of stress hormones. These biological molecules have a terrible impact, causing a higher rate of disease. 

This linkage extends to other primates, including humans, Sapolsky indicates. Humans, too, crave high social status, and those who lack it suffer stress and, potentially, disease. Here’s how a WIRED article on Sapolsky summarized this connection: 

Our physical and mental health are strongly linked 

The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular … And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these [stress] chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes. 

There is a silver lining to this knowledge: once we understand it, we are motivated to find new approaches. It’s hard to change, however, because our evolution primes us to climb social hierarchies based on strict forms of judgment about each other. We need retraining to practice respect for others, to see the human being behind surface appearances, to respond with reason, and to ignore insults to our egos. 

For me, the key is Stoic practice. This approach is an antidote, if we are able to internalize its ideas no matter the consequences. (We should be aware that the consequences of not striving for/conforming to social status can be vicious, as the ancients knew.) 

Stoicism shows the way 

Stoicism offers guidance. A core principle is that we should not jump to value judgments, about ourselves or others. We can pause and question our impression. Recall Epictetus’ way of talking back to our initial reactions: “You are but an impression, and not what you appear to be.” We turn to our ruling center. 

And Epictetus explained how to handle insults this way. 

What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective? 

Epictetus, Discourses, 1:25:28 

Interestingly, certain baboons have also found a way to manage stress—and improve their situation. And it’s remarkably similar to what Epictetus advised. From WIRED: 

Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight. 

Be a rock 

If we can conquer our ego-driven and status-motivated reactions, if we can learn to respond to insults “like a rock,” if we can find peace in our ruling center, we too can combat stress and the risks that go along with it. We’ll find the cure in Stoicism. 

Meredith A. Kunz @thestoicwoman (Twitter)