Stress. In the beginning it saved our lives. It's what made us run from predators and enabled us to take down prey. Today, humans are turning on that same life-saving stress response to cope with 30-year mortgages, four-dollar-a-gallon gas, difficult bosses and traffic jams — and we can't seem to turn it off. As a result, we are constantly marinating in corrosive hormones triggered by the stress response.
Now, scientists are showing just how measurable and dangerous prolonged exposure to stress can be. Stanford University neurobiologist, MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient and renowned author Robert Sapolsky and National Geographic reveal new answers to why and how stress is killing us in "Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special."
Throughout the film, discoveries occur in an extraordinary range of places: with baboon troops on the plains of East Africa, in office cubes of government bureaucrats in London and in neuroscience labs at the nation's leading research universities. In each location, scientists are discovering how stress works and how lethal it can be. Years of ground-breaking research by multiple scientists are revealing surprising facts about the impact of stress: It can shrink our brains, add fat to our bellies, even unravel our chromosomes. Yet, understanding how stress works can help us figure out ways to combat it and how to live a life free of this present-day plague.
For three decades, Sapolsky has been advancing our understanding of stress, in particular how our social standing can make us more or less susceptible. Along with scientists from the University of North Carolina, the University of London, Rockefeller University and the University of California, San Francisco, Sapolsky is part of a group of cutting-edge researchers whose collective work now gives stress a new relevance.
Throughout the film, Sapolsky weaves the grim reality of the impact of chronic stress with his wry observations about life. Describing one of his most intriguing early findings, he says, "Chronic stress could do something as unsubtle and grotesque as kill some of your brain cells."
"The reality is I am unbelievably stressed and Type A and poorly coping, and why else would I study this stuff 80 hours a week? No doubt everything I advise is going to lose all its credibility if I keel over dead from a heart attack in my early 50s. I am not good at dealing with stress. But one thing that works to my advantage is I love my work, I love every aspect of it," he says.
The film is based partly on Sapolsky's best-selling book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress Disease and Coping." In addition to his professorship at Stanford, Sapolsky is a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya. He is also the author of "A Primate's Memoir" and "The Trouble with Testosterone," a Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist. Sapolsky's work has been published in Science, Lancet and Journal of Neuroscience, and he has contributed articles to Discover, The New Yorker and Men's Health. He lives with his family in San Francisco.
Senior executive producer of "Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special" is John Bredar, and the producer/writer is John Heminway. Executive producer from Stanford University is Randy Bean; co-executive producer is William Free.