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01 December 2010

The Social Dimension of Stress


Another quick emergence from the morass of school and other work I'm currently mired in...
When I was back home for Thanksgiving, I watched this National Geographic documentary about Stress with OnDemand.  I expected it to be the usual thing - talking about the way stress comes about, the evolutionary background of stress, the health effects, and all of the standard suggestions for how you too can reduce stress in your everyday life.  There was some of that, but mostly I was surprised to see that it actually focused more on the social causes and effects of stress than on the individual aspects.  Apparently several research projects have shown similar results - that in strict, hierarchical organizations, those on the lower rungs tend to show more stress (and thus more stress related disease) than those on the higher rungs.

One of the most interesting parts was when Robert Sapolsky told about a troop of baboons he worked with early on in his research.  Apparently, this troop was initially just like any other - very hierarchical, very patriarchal, the dominant males beat on the lower males and all of the males beat on the females.  But one year they took up eating meat from a dump site, and many of them contracted TB and died.  The ones that died were predominantly the alphas, and so this left a gaping hole in the troop's social structure, leaving a lot of females, and a handful of the nicer males to perpetuate the troop.  The result was that the troop developed a relatively egalitarian and matriarchal structure unlike most other troops.  Most interesting was that the reduction in violence within the troop resulted in reduced stress as well (not surprisingly, I suppose).

What does that tell us?  Well, the conclusion of the researchers is essentially another individualized prescription - that we need to each find a place where we can be the alpha-dog and make that place the primary focus of our life.  I think the lesson is far more obvious and profound - that, if we want to reduce the overall stress in society, we ought to strive for more egalitarian social systems.

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