Why Zebras Don’t Get Sunday-Night Teacher Stomach Cramps

grayscale photo of zebra
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I’m in the middle of reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. It’s a book about stress written by my behavioral-scientist crush, Robert Sapolsky.

For a long time, I didn’t think I needed to read this book. It seemed like the main takeaway was obvious from the title itself: Zebras live only in the present moment. Their stress levels are based on whether they’re running away from a lion.

They don’t worry about bills.

They don’t ruminate over last week’s misunderstanding with another zebra.

They don’t get teacher anxiety dreams because they just noticed Target has started selling school supplies.

And. . . that kind of is what the book is about. But the details have been worth diving into. And there are many takeaways that will be helpful to teachers on Sunday nights—or during August, which can sometimes feel like a month full of Sunday nights.

Here are some quotes from Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers that specifically apply to teachers.

Stress and your body’s stress response are two different things.

“A stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance, and the stress-response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Immediate danger sends us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. That part lasts only a few minutes. But there’s also another wave of the stress response, our body’s way of rebalancing itself after immediate danger. The hormones involved stay in our system for a couple of hours. What we think of as feeling stressed out is often that second wave of hormones.

“The brain can experience or think of something stressful and activate components of the stress-response hormonally.”

“Essentially, we humans . . . are smart enough, to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. . .

“A stressor can also be the anticipation of that happening. Sometimes we . . . based only on anticipation, can turn on a stress-response as robust as if the event had actually occurred. . .

“If you sit and think about a major deadline looming next week, driving yourself into a hyperventilating panic, you still alter cardiovascular function to divert more blood flow to your limb muscles. Crazy. And, potentially, eventually damaging. . .

“It is not so much that the stress-response runs out, but rather, with sufficient activation, that the stress-response can become more damaging than the stressor itself, especially when the stress is purely psychological.”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

So, if an overactive stress response is bad for you, can you tone it down? Kind of. Here are a few ways.

Breathe. Breath out, especially.

“Whenever you inhale, you turn on the sympathetic nervous system slightly, minutely speeding up your heart. And when you exhale, the parasympathetic half turns on, activating your vagus nerve in order to slow things down (this is why many forms of meditation are built around extended exhalations).”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Look for expressive outlets, control, and predictive information

“Psychological factors can modulate stress-responses. Perceive yourself in a given situation to have expressive outlets, control, and predictive information, for example, and you are less likely to have a stress-response.”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

As a teacher, of course, you may be feeling stressed precisely because you don’t have predictive information or control. But there may be areas where you can grab a little more control or predictive information than you think. In August, for example, there are ways to assign seats if you haven’t gotten a class roster yet. There are also ways to do at least some advanced planning even if don’t know what you’ll be teaching next month.

Know yourself. And make adjustments accordingly.

“Your style, your temperament, your personality have much to do with whether you regularly perceive opportunities for control or safety signals when they are there, whether you consistently interpret ambiguous circumstances as implying good news or bad, whether you typically seek out and take advantage of social support.”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Understand anxiety as what it is: a cognitive distortion.

“What is anxiety? A sense of disquiet, of disease, of the sands constantly shifting menacingly beneath your feet—where constant vigilance is the only hope of effectively protecting yourself. . .

“In none of these cases is the anxiety about fear. Fear is the vigilance and the need to escape from something real. Anxiety is about dread and foreboding and your imagination running away with you. Much as with depression, anxiety is rooted in a cognitive distortion. In this case, people prone toward anxiety overestimate risks and the likelihood of a bad outcome. . .

“When we activate the stress-response out of fear of something that turns out to be real, we congratulate ourselves that this cognitive skill allows us to mobilize our defenses early.

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

In other words: Uncertainty looms. But anxiety is not the inevitable reaction to it. (She reminds herself.)

Take heart and inspiration where you can get it.

Here’s a quote from the book’s introduction that I’m including at the end of this post just because I like it. Technically, it’s about science, but I have certainly felt this way while teaching other subjects. I hope you do, too.

“I believe that everyone can benefit from some of these ideas and can be excited by the science on which they are based. Science provides us with some of the most elegant, stimulating puzzles that life has to offer. It throws some of the most provocative ideas into our arenas of moral debate. Occasionally, it improves our lives.”

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
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