X: -In the Occupational Psychology course in my University, Angelo, we had learnt that the people that were in the highest positions in the company’s rankings experienced far more stress than the employees below them. The managers have to deal with many issues and they take very serious responsibilities day by day. If you are an employee your life is simple.
A: -Makes sense. This is what I would believe at first sight. However, did you (or they) ever wonder if there is something more in this hierarchy on stress issue, too? Or you just took for granted what they taught you?
By taking this as a great opportunity, let’s untie the rope and see what science has to say. Fortunately, it has been specifically explained.
Fight or Flight Response
Our body is an extremely efficient machine. It carries skills adapted through millions of years. These skills gave us the opportunity to exist till today even though the struggle for existence was vey harsh in the jungle environment. As you can understand, our anchestors had to efficiently defend themselves from the every day dangers. So when a very serious situation was happening, the body in a few milliseconds had to activate the Fight or Flight Response first described in Walter Cannon‘s book Wisdom Of The Body, published in 1932. This evolutionary weapon, which is commonly called stress, is the body’s way to start a challenge.
Due to the immediate crisis the brain sets in maximum motion the basics of the body and turns off all the other mechanisms. At that time the heart and the lungs work overtime to send as much oxygen as possible to the bloodstream. Imagine that a dog is barking and chasing you. The muscles respond instantly. Your blood pressure has to be high to deliver the energy all around the body. This is not the time to care about reproduction, tissue repair and digestion. Neither to fight the cold. So, the immune system is disabled, too. Also, there are other observations such as pupil dilation in order to help see in better clarity, increased perspiration to prevent over-heating due to the increased metabolic rate etc. Actually, you don’t care about the long-term project if you are sure it’s long-term.
Robert Sapolsky’s work on Stress
Although there were several scientists that had dealt with the stress issue, the most significant findings in a physiological level came from Stanford’s neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky. This man advanced our understanding of stress. He will be several times mentioned in LifestyleScience.eu because he is really one of the greatest scientists ever existed. Sapolsky spent 30 years intermittently with a tribe of Olive Baboons in the plains of Kenya in East Africa. He came to remarkable findings about the effects of ranking in testicular function, the effects of social ranking in stress, the reasons behind ulcers and many others. Basically, his whole experience is described in the book A Primate’s Memoir which I am reading now frantically.
Sapolsky wanted to study baboons in the wild and not captive ones because the first ones are exposed in natural pathogens and stressors and can be followed throughout their whole lives. He wanted to look inside the baboons in cellular level so what he did in order to obtain endocrinal data was to anesthize the animals with the dissociative anesthetic phenycyclidine injected by a syringe fired by a blowgun (Sapolsky, 1990). He measured the two central hormones in the mechanism of stress response, the adrenaline that is the american version of norepinephrine and the glucocorticoids that come out of the adrenaline gland. Science could, then, observe stress not as a theoretical concept but as a specific physiological mechanism. We could measure how it affects our body.
The interesting aspect about today’s westernized life is that the fight or flight response is mostly activated with no survival reasons. It may be activated because of our thoughts about climate change or about the next day at work or about our feelings of our lover towards us. At the same time humans are the only animals in nature that can activate stress response with only a thought and cannot find the stop button. The system doesn’t exist to be chronically activated. Sapolsky mentions that when a zebra is being chased but manages to survive the response turns off. It couldn’t understand why talking in public could result in the excretion of the same hormones as when you are in great danger to be killed. So we usually turn on a mechanism that would otherwise be helpful to save our lives in very dangerous situations and, simultaneously, we have the effects mentioned above (high blood pressure, immune system deactivation etc). This apparently has several health implications many of which will be mentioned later.
At the same time we try to find the right types of stress because in these cases we really love it. We engage in extreme games, we go to luna parks, to casinos and find all this fun. The release of adrenaline and all this hormonal cascade that results in the stress response is enjoyable for human beings when it happens in a controllable environment. We pay money for all these and is called stimulation.
Stress Response and Hierarchy
Robert Sapolsky was the first neuroscientist that found an immediate link between social rank and stress among the baboons. The baboon communities had a clear ranking. Everyone knew whom he can torture and who can torture him. Who is going to have better chances in mating. Which females would eat more and better quality food and which less. His measurements showed that if you are a dominate male you can expect your stress hormones to be low and if you are submissive much higher. At the same time the low rankers had increased blood pressure and heart rates. For the first time Sapolsky had connected the deteriorating health with the ranking of a troop in the wild.
Now you’re going to ask if this could be true for humans,too. Same way as Sapolsky, professor Sir Michael Gideon Marmot in a really astounding study tracked the health of 28000 people over the course of 40 years on the british civil servant system where every job has a precise hierarchy. First of all he showed that the lower you are in the rank, the higher was the risk for heart disease and other diseases. So the first ones in the rank had lower chances than the second. The second ones had lower than the third ones etc. The study was very reliable because in the civil servant system they weren’t exposed to industrial environments, they had the same health insurances and the hierarchy was clear. So these findings were exactly the same ones with Sapolsky’s, even though at this one it was humans that were studied.
You can now understand that for every subordinate in uncertainty there is an alpha, a dominant other that is glorying in power over him without the submissive even suspecting it. The high place in hierarchy is a way of obtaining long-term health and longevity. The importance of being in a high rank (and be less stressed) can be understood if we have a look at the many of the specific way stress affects our health.
Health Implications of Stress
- Development of Ulcers. Although up to 1980 it was thought that ulcer was straightly connected with stress, the findings later changed that view. First of all it was found from Australian scientists that ulcers had to do with the development of specific bacteria and disconnected ulcers from stress totally. At that time it was thought that ulcers could be healed with just a pill. However, afterwards it was found that these ulcer causing bacteria were existing in 80% of the people but of course not all of them had ulcers. The findings that followed showed the following: The fight or flight response shuts down the non-essential mechanisms of the body. One of them is the immune system. So when the bacteria begin to reproduce in the stomach, the walls don’t build and they start rotting away by bacteria. This means that stress is indirectly related to ulcers.
- Memory undermining. Bruce McEwen and Robert Sapolsky measured the effects of stress on rats. The part of the brain responsible for memory, hippocampus, had lost its capacity on rats that had experienced long-term stress. There were damaged neurons. You are aware of the situations that you may be stressed for an exam and even though you studied well, when you enter the examination room you remember nothing. Similar experiments with the use of FMRI in humans showed that long term stress modulates tha ability of the hippocampus to store and retrieve information. (Nasrallah et. al, 1989, Axelson et. al, 1993)
- High Blood Pressure. During the fight or flight response the blood pressure increases rapidly and so does the heart rate in order for the body to metabolize energy quicker. Dr. Carol Shively studied macaque monkeys for two decades. The arteries of the subordinate ones (with history of much stress) were damaged, they had much more arteriosclerosis compared to the high-ranking ones. This damage in the blood vessels causes the arteries not to expand and that can lead to a heart attack.
- Pleasure Enjoyment. As I wrote in the Origins of Pleasure there is a centre in the brain that through the secretion of dopamine leads to feelings of enjoyment. Carol Shively examined the brains of monkeys and showed that the higher ranking ones showed a much greater activation in that centre compared to the low ranking ones. This meant that the leaders see the sun brighter that their subordinates, they take more pleasure from a similar activity.
- Distribution of Weight. This is related to the social hierarchy and possibly to the stress you experience. The Whitehall study in England showed that lower ranking people were more likely to have fat in the abdomen and around the middle of the body compared to the higher ranking ones. This kind of fat is a more dangerous one because it leads to different hormone excresion.
- Effects on fetus. A study on the Dutch Hunger Winter children proved that children exposed to stress as fetus show more responsiveness to stress, more chances of heart disease and are generally on poorer health. It was found that the change of hormones in the mother’s blood has effects of the children’s’ nervous system.
The last decades’ findings on stress have shown how seriously should be taken into account. There isn’t a disease that doesn’t have stress as one of its reasons. At the same time the westernized societies embrace stress, embrace multitasking and hard work and not relaxing.
But what mostly has to be stated is the effect of status on human societies and generally in tribal animals such as people. High ranking, as we saw, results in less stress and as a result in much lower chances for plenty of diseases. You see high status is not only attached to resources. The findings that come to light day by day prove that status plays an important role in several other aspects of life and one of them is health. The ones that stand in higher hierarchical levels know that very well. However, it is a pleasure for an alpha to let his subordinates believe that he faces so difficult situations and his life is full of stress. This way they are very happy by remaining employees, not trying to achieve higher ranks because this is going to result in more responsibilities, less free time and too much stress.
Also, humans are not like baboons. In the sense that they participate in several different tribes. One may be the leader of the football team of his friends but a low ranker one in his job. In every environment the individual behaves differently and has different physiological and psychological responses.
And the most important finding of the above is the straight proof that if you create the circumstances to have more control in your environment, either it is a job or family or whatever, you immediately decrease your stress levels when you experience that environment. If you run your company you may have many responsibilities but you don’t live in the uncertainty that characterizes a person with a low status in a company. At the same time societies can learn to give people more space for participation and as a result to reduce their stress levels. Societies that have low stress levels is obvious that have great chances to thrive and there are many animals that have been observed through research that can serve as a great example to humans.