Mighty, Mighty Stress

I wonder if talk-radio fans get embarassed when they hear who sponsors their favorite programs: Peddlers of marginal cures for obesity, baldness and tax problems. I assume there is some basis for their claims, however slight, but it is delightfully surreal to listen to hard-heads like Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt tout herbal cures that promise to build your brain or restore your eyesight without glasses. The most disquieting ad I’ve heard is for a product that will make your children taller. Please, parents are competitive enough already!

This digression leads into a startling fact I learned this morning via Boing-Boing: Severe stress can cause children to stop growing. The most famous case of psychogenic dwarfism is JM Barrie, author of “Peter Pan.” The site’s Cory Doctorow wants to draw your attention to a couple of “mind-opening” lectures by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford researcher and expert on the physiology of stress, now available via podcast. The links are here on Boing-Boing and on BrainConnection.com, which includes a short summary of Sapolsky’s lectures:

Sapolsky related a story about a boy from a very psychologically-abusive setting who was hospitalized in a New York hospital with zero growth hormone in his bloodstream. Over the next two months he developed a close relationship with the nurse at the hospital–undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever had–and soon, amazingly enough, the growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal. The nurse then went on vacation and the levels dropped again, rising once more immediately after her return.

“Think about it,” Sapolsky said, commenting upon the story. “The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world.” He added that while this standard textbook version of stressed dwarfism is rare, there is nevertheless “major league psychopathology” throughout society, retarding human growth.

“Major stress is the police and social workers breaking down the door of the apartment, finding the kids who have been locked in the closet for two months, the food slipped under the door. Total nightmare situations that turn out often in history. . . kids in war zones, kids in areas of civil strife.”

The problem with human beings, Saplosky says, is that unlike animals, we expose ourselves to sustained periods of stress — sometimes through undergoing a prolonged, horrific experience like war or abuse, sometimes because we anticipate, or remember stressful experiences…and sometimes because we choose stress as a lifestyle.

Stress is fundamental to our economy. We make heroes out of people whose work habits are unhealthy, and tell young employees to model themselves after stress addicts. Without asking the question directly, employers try to assess potential employees’ ability to handle stress. Job applicants understand this game, too. They know it won’t be helpful to their employment prospects if show too much curiosity about the company’s “work-life balance policies.” Better to say, “I’m used to working long hours,” or even “I don’t have a life.”

The only job interviews where prospects raise “work-life balance” occur when the prospect knows they have many competitors for their services. But even in cases where bidding is heavy, the potential employee’s perceived market value is usually associated more with their ability to carry a huge workload than their talents. “He’s a horse,” a boss will say admiringly. “She’s got such energy.”

The glorification of stress may never change, but the employer eventually pays a price, Sapolsky research suggests. Stressed-out workers slowly become stupider.

Until recently…it was commonly believed that if you lost brain cells they were lost forever. “You can make new neurons in your brain after all,” Sapolsky said, “and especially in the Hippocampus in response to things like learning and environmental stimulation. But stress will block the formation of new neurons.”

While the hippocampus does have the capacity to regenerate, it’s far from certain that this will occur, Sapolsky asserted. People who have endured horrible stress, such as Vietnam combat veterans and victims of prolonged childhood sexual abuse, are often fated to suffer permanent damage to the hippocampus, resulting in memory loss.

Depression, “what Sapolsky termed the common cold of psychopathology,” also attacked the hippocampus with stress hormones. Massive long-term depression, he said, was almost certain to cause permanent damage in the form of memory loss.

Companies that want to “invest in their employees” need to keep this in mind. Your best employees’ long hours might make them more profitable, but the brainpower-per-square-inch will decline unless you take some of the pressure off.

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