How Do We Know That Stress Affects Health?


Robert Sapolsky, father of stress science

Robert Sapolsky, father of stress science

Chronic stress is bad for our health. Obvious, right? It hasn't always been. As recently as the 1970s stress was not thought to affect our health at all! It took evidence (gathered partly by accident) to convince us.

Meet Robert Sapolsky, the physical Weird Al of scientists. This frizzy haired, good-natured neurologist and professor at Stanford University is the father of stress science.

He’s spent decades studying baboons in east Africa - intelligent, highly social animals that have no natural predators. Eating takes up only three hours a day, so there’s a lot of time to hang around and stress out about social position.

Sapolsky observed several troops’ behavior, took blood and tissue samples, and monitored their hearts. He noticed that lower ranking members continued to show compromised immune systems, and a brain chemistry similar to clinically depressed humans.


One day, a terrible (arguably) thing happened. In the Forest Troop, all the dominant males took advantage of their superior status to raid a tourist lodge’s trash dump. As such, they also got to be the ones to die of bovine tuberculosis from tainted meat. Twist ending!

Epilogue: Much like nerds escaping a band of neighborhood bullies, the rest of the troop breathed a sigh of relief; no longer would they walk on eggshells or worry about beatings provided by their brutish male counterparts. Only submissive males and females were left, and wouldn’t you know, they started a new culture of kindness that continues to this day even as new males join.

The point is, Sapolsky could now compare their health levels to what they were before the great trash tragedy. What do you know? Marked improvement.


Turns out, stress is partially good for us. Our body is flushed with hormones that help us in fight or flight situations, like escaping the saber-tooth tiger chasing us.

But now that we’re comfortable and domesticated, we don’t often need to actually fight or fly. Instead, we sit around and worry endlessly, and the consequences of our bodies marinating in stress hormones are devastating. Higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues…the list of goes on. ‘Good to know!’ said the 1980s.

Sapolsky says, "For 99 percent of the beasts on this planet, stress is about three minutes of screaming in terror after which it’s either over with or you’re over with.  And we turn it on for 30-year mortgages.”


You all know I’m all about using my photography to help people. The whole idea behind the Healing Art Cart is that providing soothing nature photography to hospital patients reduces stress and therefore improves health outcomes. Letting patients choose what they want is another route to stress-reduction, since it relieves the sense of powerlessness that often comes with hospitalization.  Stress-reduction is like the hokey-pokey of Evidence-Based Art - that's what it's all about!