Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

It’s quite surprising, isn’t it. That most people don’t realise what happens to their bodies when they’re under stress. Sure we know it feels bad. All that anxiety, worry and fear. And we probably all realise that our muscles tighten up. Those sore necks for example. The tightness across our shoulders. And we may notice our hearts racing. Pumping out the blood that bit more quickly. And our breathing quickens, becoming shallower as we breathe more rapidly. And that’s all okay when the stress is fleeting. A fright that we recover from quickly or a deadline to meet. Because when the stress is over our bodies can recover to a happier state that allows for growth and repair.

But have you ever wondered what happens to your body when the stress is ongoing? Chronic stress they call it. The sort of stress that comes with the diagnosis of cancer for instance. That unrelenting mental and emotional tension. Not to mention the constant physical challenges. And chemical stress.

Well here’s the thing… under chronic stress non-essential services continue to remain shut down… indefinitely.

And you may be wondering what non-essential services are. Well they’re the systems in our bodies that are deemed non-essential when you’re fighting for your life. Digestion for instance. No point in directing all your energy toward digesting last night’s dinner when you’re trying to flee for your life. Much better to redirect that energy toward your legs for running. Or your arms for fighting. Reproduction is another one. No point in trying to procreate when you might not survive the next hour. And here’s the clincher. Your long range immune system goes down too. After all, why invest your energy into surveillance for cancer cells or bugs that might cause infections, when redirecting that energy could mean the difference between life and death in the present moment.

I was speaking to a doctor recently who is studying the link between stress and cancer. And it’s no surprise. After all, in research circles it’s commonly known that someone under emotional stress has a lowered immune function. And in my work, I so often see how the diagnosis of cancer has followed a huge emotional loss. Robert Sapolsky puts the science of it beautifully in his book ‘Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers’. Such a great title. And a great read for those who like the science.

How strange it is we’re encouraged to fight our cancers. So short-sighted too. Because this approach just seems all wrong. Quite the opposite of what we need to be doing. Because when you’re constantly fighting something your immune system goes down. And let’s face it, cancer treatment is a bit of a marathon. And the stress can be unrelenting. Far better to conserve your energy by learning how to relieve the stress. So we switch our non-essential services back on. Because our immune system is the very thing we need to heal, isn’t it. To get it up and running again to protect us into the future.

I wonder, are you fighting cancer or healing cancer? It’s such an important distinction…

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