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Lifestyle & Wellness
Managing Stress: What Rats Have To Teach Us

By Chris Woolston

 • Misery loves company
 • Stay in control
 • Find an outlet
 • Stay active

If you really want to understand the pitfalls of the rat race, you have to go to the experts: actual rats.

Ever since the 1930s, these rodents have been the superstars of stress research. Rats showed us that mammals have one basic response to all sorts of different types of stress: An unexpected shock, a forced swim, or an ice-cold cage will all trigger a flow of stress hormones that sound an alarm throughout the body. Rats also showed us that long-term exposure to these stress hormones causes a wide range of health problems, from ulcers to heart disease.

Perhaps most important, rats have shown us that stress can be overcome. When conditions are right, rats can be stronger than stress -- and so can we.

Misery loves company

One of the most important lessons from rat research is that it's good to have friends, even if those friends are other rats.

A study reported in a 2004 issue of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that male rats exposed to mild electric shocks acted less stressed-out if they were with a partner. Interestingly, the "buddy system" was especially effective if the other rat wasn't getting shocked, too. The researchers speculated that the mere sight of another rat helped stem the flow of stress hormones -- in short, that the brain was telling the animal to "lighten up."

The message for humans is clear: When facing stress, it pays to have a partner -- preferably one who's not in the same boat.

Stay in control

Rats and scientists have much in common: Scientists like to think that life in the lab is orderly, predictable, and within their control, and so, it appears, do rats. For rats, mild shocks can be extremely stressful if they happen at random and come with no warning. Even tasty food rewards can be stressful if they arrive at unpredictable times.

Give a rat some sense of control -- for instance, let it push a lever to lessen the intensity of the shocks -- and something remarkable happens: Sensations that once drove the rat crazy now suddenly seem like no big deal.

In a 2005 study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers discovered how rat brains respond to stressful situations that are under their control. Instead of sounding the alarm, the brain tells the body to slow down the release of stress hormones. These hormones are handy if your only options are fight or flight, but they aren't necessary if the brain senses another way to cope. As one researcher put it in a release from the National Institutes of Health, the brain essentially says, "Cool it…we have control over this and there's no reason to get excited."

It goes without saying that humans have control issues, too, especially in the workplace. As stress expert Robert Sapolsky writes in his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), following someone else's rules, schedules, and whims is often the key component to on-the-job stress. It's also the main reason why high-demand, low-control jobs may contribute to developing heart disease, metabolic disorders, and other stress-related illnesses.

Unfortunately, few offices are equipped with levers to reduce stress. In this case, the lesson from the rats isn't always easy to apply to real life. Still, understanding the link between stress and control can at least help some people better understand their plight -- and it just might encourage them to talk to their managers or think about a change in career.

Find an outlet

For rats, gnawing can be great comfort. When times are tough, rats will vigorously sink their teeth into a piece of wood if given the chance. Studies show that gnawing actually reduces a rat's stress hormones and can prevent ulcers. Rats can also successfully fight stress by drinking water, eating food, or running on their wheel -- anything to take their mind off their troubles and vent their frustrations.

As Sapolsky notes, humans have discovered the same basic strategies, minus the gnawing. Often to their detriment, many humans have become overly dependent on the stressing-reducing benefits of eating. Sapolsky suggests other outlets. "Punch a wall, take a run, find solace in a hobby," he writes. It all helps. (Although punching a wall can be painful and expensive; try a punching bag or a pillow instead.)

When it comes to finding distractions, humans have a huge advantage over rats: We're so brainy that we can calm down by simply imagining a distraction. Rats simply don't have the ability to picture their audience in nothing but underwear.

Stay active

As any rat in a wheel can attest, exercise is a great way to beat stress. Actually, make that "almost any rat." As Sapolsky writes, rats hate being forced to run even short distances -- something to consider before you try dragging someone to the gym. But when exercise is on their schedule and their terms, it's one of the best stress-busters around.

Not only is exercise a welcome distraction, it helps burn up the nervous energy provided by stress hormones. The hormones are meant to prepare you for "fight or flight," but they certainly won't mind a good game of racquetball instead.

To get the most out of exercise, find something you love. Having a willing exercise buddy will help, too. Again we can take our inspiration from rats: A study published in Nature Neurosciencein 2006 found that rats who exercise alone miss out on many of the benefits of exercise. Unlike rats who had company, the solitary runners didn't build any new brain cells. More to the point, their hormone levels showed that weren't getting much relief from stress.

Count on friends, get some control over your environment, find an outlet for stress, and get regular exercise: It's some of the best advice a rodent can give.

-- Chris Woolston is a contributing editor at Consumer Health Interactive. He has a master's degree in biology and has served as a staff reporter at the late Hippocrates, a national magazine for physicians; he has also written for WebMD, Health magazine, and many other publications. He is the co-author of Generation Extra Large: Rescuing Our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity (Perseus paperback, 2006).


Sapolsky, R.M. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Third Edition. Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2004.

American Psychological Association. Buddy system eases stress, study says. September 2004.

Li, L., et al. Chronic stress induces rapid occlusion of angioplasty-injured rat carotid artery by activating neuropeptide Y and its Y1 receptors. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. October 2005. (10):2075-80.

National Institutes of Health. Rat brain's executive hub quells alarm center if stress is controllable. February 2005.

Amat, J. et al. Medial prefrontal cortex determines how stressor controllability affects behavior and dorsal raphe nucleus. Nature Neuroscience. March 2005. 8(3):365-371.

Stranaham, A.M. et al. Social isolation delays the positive effects of running on adult neurogenesis. Nature Neuroscience. April 2006. 9(4):526-533.

Kiyokawa, Y. et al. Partner’s stress status influences social buffering effects in rate. Behavioral Neuroscience. August 2004. 118(4):798-804.

Reviewed by Michael Potter, MD, an attending physician and associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who is board certified in family practice.

Our reviewers are members of Consumer Health Interactive's medical advisory board.
To learn more about our writers and editors, click here.

Copyright © 2006 Consumer Health Interactive

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