Dr. Robert Sapolsky is considered one of America’s leading scientists doing work on the psychosocial and physiological effects of stress on human life. He began his ground breaking research back in 1978 by studying baboon troops in Kenya. One of the things he noticed was how a baboon’s status in the troop impacted it’s physiological condition. He noticed, for instance, that the males at the bottom of the hierarchy were thinner and more nervous in general. “They just didn’t look very healthy,” he said. “That’s when I began thinking about how damn stressful it must be to have no status. You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.”
So he would shoot these baboons with anesthetic darts and then, while they were plunged into sleep, quickly measure their immune system function and the levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in their blood. What he discovered was stunning. These lower status baboons were living in a state of chronic stress – they had to fight for everything and continually “bow” to those males at the top of the totem pole. And this chronic stress, measured by Sapolsky via their blood samples, revealed that it was a profound chemistry problem that he and other specialists have shown to be true over and over again since that discovery.
Here’s how a recent article in Wired magazine described it: When there’s stress like this, “a tiny circuit in the base of the brain triggers the release of glucocorticoids, a family of stress hormones that puts the body in a heightened state of alert. The molecules are named after their ability to rapidly increase levels of glucose in the blood, thus providing muscles with a burst of energy. They also shut down all nonessential bodily processes, such as digestion and the immune response. ‘This is just the body being efficient,’ Sapolsky says. ‘When you’re being chased by a lion, you don’t want to waste resources on the small intestine. You’ll ovulate some other time. You need every ounce of energy just to get away.’
“But glucocorticoids have a nasty side effect: When they linger in the bloodstream, as they might due to chronic stress related to low rank, damage accumulates. It’s the physiological version of a government devoting too many resources to its defense department, Sapolsky says. The body is so worried about war that it doesn’t fix the roads or invest in schools. Interestingly, the effects of stress appear particularly toxic to the brain.”
One of the profound impacts of Dr. Sapolsky’s research was to show how even one’s status in a social group led to a state of chronic stress with the related physiological symptoms being able to be clearly measured and repeated. The long term impact was hugely negative: increased heart rate and blood pressure, a rise in arterial plaque even when fed a low-fat diet, and more than twice as likely to suffer from heart disease and a correspondingly premature death.
Numerous studies among humans since those early primate studies have reconfirmed the powerful negative effects of stress caused by subordination in position and status. When people have a sense of control and power over their lives, stress decreases and health increases. When they don’t, stress with all the negative effects, especially when it’s chronic, impacts the entire system – and the system ultimately dies.
Here’s the way Wired put it: “The moral is that the most dangerous kinds of stress don’t feel that stressful. It’s not the late night at the office that’s going to kill us; it’s the feeling that nothing can be done. The person most at risk for heart disease isn’t the high-powered executive anxious about their endless to-do list — it’s the frustrated janitor stuck with existential despair.”
Or, it’s the person who because of gender or sexual orientation feels consigned to a “lower status” in society – who feels a sense of powerless because the policies or practices of an organization and laws of the land conspire against their ability and opportunity to rise to higher levels of position and acceptance in their environment. The tragic result of creating this state of imposed potential helplessness and powerlessness is that we as a society, whether intentionally or not, are reproducing experiences of chronic stress and sentencing such people to the risks associated with major health problems. Inequality and prejudice do impact stress levels.
In my opinion, this makes our contemporary religious and social issues of women’s ordination and same gender marriage hugely spiritual issues. The fact that in our religious and political organizations we’ve developed a hierarchy of acceptance and status, denying equality in position and power and therefore rights and opportunities based upon gender and sexual orientation, means that we are also denying a quality of life with its proven and profound health benefits and longevity to some and not others. We are ironically mirroring the baboon troops that live purely instinctual survival existences.
Isn’t this in distinct contrast to the model of life Jesus described himself coming to bring to all? “I have come that people will have life, the abundant life!” (John 10:10) Jesus was about lifting people up, increasing their quality of life, empowering and building up people in an atmosphere of equality and acceptance. As opposed to the thief, he pointed out, whose sole purpose is to steal, to kill, to diminish and destroy life for others.
When we develop pyramidal hierarchies where there’s an “upper” and a “lower” based upon gender or sexual orientation, and then we develop practices and policies that ensure that the value of that “status” is chronic (and then we top it off by using religious / spiritual language to justify our pyramidal laws and values), we are no better than thieves, stealing from them the abundant, free, and high quality life Jesus came to give them.
Research has also shown another tragic outcome of the state of chronic stress. The stress response can get hardwired into our system especially when it happens at an early stage in life, making people more vulnerable to stress-related diseases and conditions. Here’s how it works: “The physiology underlying this response has been elegantly revealed in the laboratory. When lab rats are stressed repeatedly, the amygdala — an almond-shaped nub in the center of the brain — enlarges dramatically. (This swelling comes at the expense of the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory and shrinks under severe stress.) The main job of the amygdala is to perceive danger and help generate the stress response; it’s the brain area turned on by dark alleys and Hitchcock movies. Unfortunately, a swollen amygdala means that we’re more likely to notice potential threats in the first place, which means we spend more time in a state of anxiety. (This helps explain why a more active amygdala is closely correlated with atherosclerosis.) The end result is that we become more vulnerable to the very thing that’s killing us.”
Meaningful and effective spirituality is about empowering ourselves and others to experience the highest quality life possible. It’s being faithful to the kind of life Jesus said he came to give freely to people – the abundant life – a life where people can become the very best they can be at every stage of life. And genuine spirituality involves facing the structures, policies, practices, and beliefs that people put into place that are diminishing and destroying life for others – facing them and changing them. Equality and justice are spiritual issues that impact the quality of life for all people! To fail to address them is to diminish our own souls, our bodies, and our whole lives – for when even one person in this world is diminished we are all. And when one person is lifted up, we all are lifted up, we all are enhanced.
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