Mice and Men

(Zebra Hunting) Part two.

I have spoken of zebras and running from tigers. 

I have clarified that stress is a good thing, in appropriate doses, with appropriate recovery time. I have spoken of why I love being a doctor. I have spoken on the nervous system’s inextricable link to our reactivity.

I have not, however touched on exactly what happens in the body when we happen to be chased by a tiger or what courses through our veins when the bank  a lover breathes down your neck, awaiting, ready to devour you.

That’s because it’s foggy in the savannah of stress, for scientists. 

Stress is biochemically nebulous. Stress makes the hair on our arms rise, because we anticipate our lover’s sweet caress, or because we are scared that repo is going to be a terrifying experience. Both situations create a slight increase in our sympathetic nervous system and stress hormone circulation – one is delightful and the other is quite unpleasant.

Confusing situations, in my experience, are best translated through story.

So, let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a man and some mice. He made them swim for their food. Every day, some mice had to swim a consistent distance, though long, to get their food. Others had to swim different distances each day, that averaged out to the same distance as the other mice, to get to their food. Do you know what happened?

The mice that swam unpredictable distances died. Yes, they DIED. Not from physical exhaustion, not from malnourishment, not from pneumonia, but from having to adjust continuously to new demands for their survival, for an extended and undeterminable timeline. Their bodies literally, could not survive the fear of the unknown.

MAJOR UPDATE: Ok. None of that happened. I just thumbed through my weathered book again to find the reference to this study, and I can’t find it anywhere, nor in the annals of the internet.


I think I dreamed the whole study. I do that sometimes.

But stick with me. There are at several studies that involve rats and 1. swimming 2. food 3. electric shocks. All of which demonstrate the negative physical and psychological effects of unpredictability. You can see where my dreams originated. Thanks for your patience.

Inconsistent demands, varied requirements, uncertain access to needs, end results that depend on another’s behaviour – All these factors are common in most humans’ daily lives, but not conducive to our innate programming for survival:

The actual work/physical exertion/mental effort of our busy lives is not what’s killing us. 

It’s the inability to keep going into eternity, with an unpredictable and potentially unappealing future. 

This is normal. This is human. We are pattern searchers. We create stories. We love archetypes. We like labels and rhythms and cycles and clocks and timelines and seasons. We were built for this.

Mammals. We are an incredibly resilient group of creatures. Our skill is that we can learn adapt to our new normal, fairly quickly. We have endurance. We can swallow our pride and follow directions, for the greater good. We like the idea of trust & faith & loyalty. We have  a limit. When we hit that limit, we get scared.

We do not all walk the zen way of acceptance and peace for all that may happen. But not knowing how to pull ourselves out of the spiral of fear and despair can be problematic.

For many of us – our familiar patterns are the backbone of homes, nourishment, families, livelihood & mental health. If these pillars are compromised beyond our control, we, similar to mice, can develop a huge sense of fear of the unknown, causing persistent low-grade panic.  Try as we may, the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.


As our blood and brains show, if our fear pushes us more than our desire, we, like the mice, can suffer greatly.

Side Note: In Traditional Chinese Medicine. Fear is associated with the Kidneys & Adrenals. In physiology, fear response chemicals come from and directly affect the Adrenals & Kidney. That’s interesting.

Also, Simon Sinek’s, Why Leaders Eat Last  states emphatically that the unstable climate of most jobs cultivates fear and insecurity. This triggers the adrenal hormone, Cortisol, to drip continuously into the body to manage that low-grade persistent fear. He states that it is this constant leaking of cortisol, and not saturated fat, that is driving us headfirst into chronic illness.

So post-digression – what of all this fear, all this unpredictability. What is happening inside?

Before we dive in, I’m going to use this word a lot so let’s do a crash course education: 

Cortisol. It’s a steroid hormone, that comes from the adrenal glands (little hats that sit on top of your kidneys).

We need it everyday, in a rhythm that matches our sleeping, eating and energy cycles. It is crucial in immune system function, turns down inflammation in the body, blood sugar management, and gives us the resources for stressful situations. Okay, ready?

Well, there was another man, Hans Selye. He developed a theory of stress response. It was calledGeneral Adaptation Syndrome.  He thought there were 3 stages of Adaptation (or what we call “stress & recovery”). There is also a floating term out there called Adrenal Fatigue, that loosely relates to Selye’s ideas.

Stage 1: Alarm 

– Stressor arrives, signals sent to adrenal glands and brain, alarming hormones and neurotransmitters to release. First into a stage of lowered cortisol, then increasing – a little bit like shock.

Picture the record screeching, like pulling back on the elastic band before it fires – the phone call, the moment it hits, when it seems like life is in slow motion as the information settles in;  then silence to regroup and on to the plan of action. This is the time when we are the optimists. When we have some sense of faith that it will be ok. Proper functioning in all systems triggered to help the 4 F’s (Flight,fight, freeze & … fornicate). 

This is what I call “Go time” in the context of stress in life.  


Stage 2: Resistance 

– Cortisol; The major stress response hormone from the adrenals, as well as Epinephrine & Norepinephrine rise & the stress is resisted (ie; a recovery stage begins).

All systems go. The front line charges, and the plan of action has been initiated. The elastic band has shot across the room. The shields are down as we are not in safety and preservation mode anymore. This is when the we give it our all. We throw our best tactics, all our coping mechanisms that have worked in the past. The hormones and neurotransmitters are full on, and so are we. 

This is our prime. We shine here. I call this “Show time”.


Stage 3: Exhaustion

– If pushed for too long, the adrenals exhaust, no longer able to create cortisol, or appropriate amounts for stressors, and the individual is unable to cope with stress at all. Commonly, though not medically, known as Adrenal Fatigue.

The reins get pulled in. The resources have been depleted. The casualties are outnumbering the victories. We gave it our all, and we didn’t gain control. The tiger will always eat the rooster, the scientist ultimately called the shots. It is time to wave the little white flag. Good game. 

I used to call this “Woah/woe time”.

The 3rd Stage of this model, through several studies, has long since been shown to be a misunderstanding in stress physiology.

What has been found is that there are very few situations when an individual has lost the capacity to create enough cortisol, and respond to stress.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Most chronic illness is a result of hyper-reactivity of cortisol. Excess cortisol damages several body systems, and exhausts the body’s ability to repair them. Hence the fatigue.

Adrenal fatigue is not what we thought.

It is actually body burnout.

Outta left field. Stage 3 – was just plain misunderstood. Selye was brilliant, but missed out on why the mice really died. Not because their adrenals stopped working, but in fact because they just couldn’t shut off the cortisol flow. Cortisol is not meant to leak nor fire-hose into our bodies. Cortisol is meant for fits and starts.

Cortisol is the fast twitch fibre, cortisol is the 100m. It was never meant for the marathon. It will flail embarrassingly and disastrously if we ask it to run 42.2 km, when it has only ever trained for the run from house to car.

When cortisol flails, our cells – innocent bystanders – are the casualties. We just don’t have enough internal emergency rooms to repair the damage.

It would be to our benefit to do more extensive research to find out if this is a “Stage 2.5″; analogous to the Insulin Resistant stage of Type II Diabetes – where consistent high stress, triggers excess cortisol to turn down the reaction, and unfortunately the cells become resistant to cortisol. I’m curious about this.

You know what modulates this whole cascade and lowers cortisol? Sitting quietly without thoughts, regularly. So simple.(or not).  Meditation + Cortisol: Pub Med it.  Knowing the solution isn’t the hard part, it’s the habit that trips us up.

We are programmed to think, adapt, react. Sitting quietly is inherently against survival mechanisms to fight, defend, flee or procreate. But, ironically, it is the way we grow in an unsurvivable climate.

To sit quietly as a habit does not mean to stop engaging with the world.

It means to release the tight grip we have around our feelings. That’s what anxiety is. When fear rises about things that we cannot change nor predict, we say “ok, thanks for the heads up”, and keep doing our best work in the world. I think that’s a pretty good tool to have in your toolbox.

Maybe the zen way is the way.

*All of this is from my reading of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, references within.

Want support from a few different points of view? HereHereHereHereHere. (Anyone else picture Fresh Prince of Bel Air when saying that?).

health researchThara Vayali