Imagine that you are subjected to a series of mild shocks, equivalent to the static shocks that come from rubbing your foot across the carpet. As the shocks keep coming, you feel more and more stressed. Now imagine that your next-door neighbor experiences the exact same series of shocks. The only difference is that she is allowed to run over to a candy bar sitting on her dining room table and begin chewing it after each shock. Some time later, you develop an ulcer while your neighbor does not. If you think that the candy bar made the vital difference, you would probably be right.
Sound far-fetched? A physiologist by the name of Jay Weiss performed a similar experiment on rats. He let one rat run over to a piece of wood and gnaw on it after each shock. That rat was far less likely to develop an ulcer than the one that experienced a series of shocks with no relief. A masochistic variation on Weiss’s experiment delivered a series of shocks and then allowed the stressed rat to run across the cage and bite another rat to its heart’s content. Guess what? All that biting worked wonders! It seems victimizing others is a great stress reducer.1
So what’s the takeaway for us? Should we all be eating more chocolate bars or beating up on others whenever we feel frustrated? Of course not. The point is that our stress has to go somewhere. Unless we find positive ways to release it, either our bodies will absorb the stress or we will find harmful ways to release it.
One of the best stress relievers known to humankind is exercise. We know that psychological stress can activate the body for a fight-or-flight response even when none is needed. Exercise uses up the energy that the body is prepared to expend, thereby relieving the stress we feel. Other strategies, like talking to a friend or distracting yourself with an activity you enjoy or even imagining that you are doing something pleasant, can also offer relief. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of ignoring stress. Instead, look for practical ways to relieve it so you can experience more peace in your life.
- The experiments are described in Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 255–56.