Stressful Reading

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
By Robert M. Sapolsky
560 pp. Holt Paperbacks. $22.

I’m a major stresser.

I stress over big things, over little things, over all things. Because I’m a stresser, I’m all too often a stressor (i.e. a person or thing that causes stress) for the people around me.

It sucks, really. I don’t like stressing, something that all those who are constantly telling me to “calm down,” “chill out,” “relax!” just don’t seem to get.

It’s not like I can just flip a switch here.

If only!

It worries me, because of course, along with stressing, I’m also anxious. Yes, anxiety is a constant companion. I worry all the time that I don’t have enough time, so I spend all my time worrying.

Time, money, people … these are the main things that cause me stress and anxiety, but they certainly aren’t the only ones.

I worry because I stress. Mainly because, if I get so stressed going to the grocery story (and I very much do), how will I handle something truly monumental? Like, say, the death of a loved one, or bad health news? (I have, for now, been incredibly fortunate to not to have had to deal with either.)

My stress sometimes starts off over small things, not emailing a friend who emailed me a month ago, say, forgetting to pick up toothpaste, and then spirals into greater stresses, what I call “tomorrow stresses” (though my stress is happening very much in the present moment).

I don’t have health insurance, so what if something happens to me and I need to go the doctor? What if I can’t pay my rent? What if I am forced forced to work in an office again? (god forbid!)

I very much have tried/am trying to get my anxiety/stress under control. No, I won’t take anxiety medication. I flat out refuse to even consider the prospect of anti-depressants or the like (I’m not really depressed anyway … I don’t think). I’ve always viewed pills as the worst sort of coping mechanism (well, aside from harder drugs like alcohol or heroin, that is). Always having to constantly up the dosage to maintain the same feeling of … numbness. No thanks.

No disrespect intended to anyone who takes prescription meds, by the way. Whatever you need to get you through the day. I just know that it’s not something I can envision for myself …

So I’ve tried other things.

I’ve downloaded a meditation app and one of these days — tomorrow, let’s say, as I do every day — I will actually start it. I bought and read this book, which I otherwise wouldn’t have done.

It’s a very good book. I liked it a lot and I’m glad I read it. Boiling down stress to various chemical elements, leading to an over abundance of glucocorticoids, leading to umm, bad things, helps … I think. It takes the emotional component out of it, makes it feel more mechanical, like a broken chain on a bicycle that can, maybe, be fixed.

Some might complain that of the 18 chapters that make up “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” only the final one, “Managing Stress,” actually tells you how to, uh, manage stress. But those 17 former chapters are equally as important.

For one thing, they give you a better idea of the effects of stressing out (spoiler: they’re not good), which was, yes, stressful to learn about. But for another, the cumulative effect of all the various stressors, of learning the hows and the whys of it all, is oddly comforting.

Many would likely consider a book about stress a particularly timely read, in light of, well, the times. Which is a funny thing, because I’ve found — pathologically? — that I’m possibly less stressed now than I was before. In some way, it again goes back to the idea of time, of missing out on life, on things. Misery does love company, and the fact that so many people are, sadly, miserable at the current moment — isolated in their homes, unable to attend any sort of gatherings or events as they’ve all been canceled — comforts me as I know that 1. I’m not alone and 2. I’m not missing out on anything.

Yes, maybe I’m a villain ripped straight from a comic book. At least credit me for my honesty.

And that’s the one aspect I wish Robert Sapolsky — who I feel I’d very much like as a person — had covered, albeit my edition (the third, released in 2004) may have been slightly too old for that, Millennial that I am.

Which is whether there is any truth to the idea that anxiety and stress may be not just individual, but generational as well. You often hear, or at least I do, that Millennials are more prone to stress, more anxious, than their generational predecessors. There are, of course, many very reasonable explanations for this.

Student debt. Gross inequality. Global warming. Helicopter parenting. Stricter moral upbringings. Growing up in the age of global terrorism. General disenchantment with modern politics. Untempered capitalism. Doubts as to whether one can truly make a difference, etc etc etc, ad infinitum.

Because when I talk to my Millennial counterparts, I don’t feel unique in my anxiety, in my stress over how to survive, how to make a living, in 2020. Nobody seems to have the answers, and the general advice from our elders seems to be “don’t worry so much” when indeed there seems to be so much to worry about.

It’s an anxiety stemming not from a fear of nonexistence, of our mortality, but of existence itself, of reconciling with the fact that a human existence bears no more meaning than an animal one, because we are, after all, just animals.

We struggle to reconcile with this fact, to cope with the reality that there is no meaning to any of it.

The only answer, then, is to make our own meaning. To find it in books, in relationships, in writing, in forms of expression that will outlast ourselves.

You may even find it here.

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