“I’m not the type to get ulcers. I give them.”—Edward Koch, former New York mayor

THE WAY OF THE ZEBRA/Image: Michael Moffa

Modern medical science has identified a nasty bacterium, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), as a key causal factor in the development of most human ulcers. However, there remain important psychological and environmental factors at work in your office and in your mind that may contribute to your getting an ulcer—a medical condition that the whimsical title of Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers suggests is a very and mostly human problem.

Whether your job stress is chronic or acute, mild or severe, there is something you can learn from zebras about how to cope with it. In his scientifically well-researched and insightful 1994 book, Dr. Sapolsky, Stanford University Professor of Biological Sciences, Neurology and Neurological Sciences, explains why humans get ulcers when animals in the wild, including zebras, rarely, if ever, do.

The Way of the Zebra

The main reason is that, even though animals in general are not as ingenious or able to control their environments as humans on average are, they seem to be much smarter and freer than many of us when it comes to stress prevention and control. The key to their ulcer-free lives is very simple: They do what most animals do when stressed by other animals—they usually adopt one of the “3F”s of “fight”, “flight” or “freeze”, depending on whether the individual animal or species has retaliation, fleeing or remaining perfectly still as its best option in a given kind of threat situation on any specific occasion.

A zebra, for example, may employ any one of these methods. It may, upon being harried by a lone jackal, fight. Confronted by a menacing pack of jackals, it is more likely to flee. Or, just getting a whiff of them on the far side of a hill crest, it may momentarily freeze and remain vigilant until it assesses the situation or the danger has passed.

Other animals, such as rabbits, in virtue of being small and defenseless, are far less likely to fight, and will flee or freeze—much like a harried employee who, unable to fight the boss, is likely to quit (flee) or to try to make herself as inconspicuous as possible (freeze). Should neither flight nor freeze succeed, there are other animal options that often work, such as “fold”—i.e., to submit, much as the loser in a wolf dust-up does, to prevent serious injury to itself at the fangs of the more dominant rival.  For the frazzled employee, this may another option.

A second reason that Sapolsky identifies for the relative immunity to ulcers among animals in the wild is that their stress, unlike that of humans, tends to be acute and transient, rather than chronic, even if severe. A zebra sees a lion and runs. That’s transient, albeit severe stress. A self-employed recruiter alternates between having too much or too little to do or has unbearable time pressures all the time. That’s chronic stress, something that a young male jackal bullied by other jackals can experience (sometimes with fatal results), but a condition that seems to be far more common in human interactions and certainly more common than in inter-species stressful interactions. On the other hand, if a candidate doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting with a client, that’s transient, acute stress.

The smart strategy, for jackals, zebras and humans alike, is to prevent stress from becoming chronic. Yes, zebras, like us, can have unremitting and uncontrollable chronic stressors, such as drought or pesky flies. But in its interactions with other animals of its own or other species, the Big 3 of “fight/flight/freeze” generally serve the zebra well and serve as a behavioral template for you as you try to cope with your uniquely human stressors and prevent ulcers. As a minimum, they are a yardstick by which you can measure the effectiveness of whatever ways you’ve tried to deal with your stressors and the stress they induce.

My Hybrid Zebra Strategy

In one recruitment situation long ago, when I was one of a handful of new recruits being intensively trained in-house for a fast-paced job as a programmer analyst, I had, according to one supervisor who actually liked me, fallen a bit behind schedule and was given a warning. My immediate hybrid zebra response: to fight by threatening flight. I said to him, “Well, I’m not interested in working with that kind of sword of Damocles hanging over my head. If you really believe that I’ve not been pulling my weight, I’m ready to move out and on.”

That nipped any stress in the bud.

Taken aback, he urged me not to quit. I promised to do whatever I could to pick up the pace and calmly returned to the tasks at hand—until I became the victim of budget cuts about two weeks later, when another supervisor I never met did the paperwork to terminate me during my immediate supervisor’s vacation.

A particularly instructive aspect of that stress-management exercise was the response of another of the recruits, who overheard that conversation. He told me how impressed he was with my courage. I told him that it wasn’t courage. It was merely a consequence of the fact that I, unlike him, was single with no dependents—a predisposing and enabling factor underlying the willingness and ability to use “fight” and/or “flight”, or the threat to use it, as a workplace stress-management tool. Given his family commitments and in the event of similar job stress, he was far more likely to simply freeze—since fighting and fleeing were not options.

Put a Freeze on “Freeze”

A second lesson to be gleaned from this story is that “freeze” is probably not such a good idea for you, even if it’s great for rabbits. That’s because, apart from your having more options than a rabbit, the rabbit will use it to cope with transient, acute stress, not for chronic stress, whereas humans are more likely to use freezing as a habitual response to chronic workplace stress, e.g., do nothing to change the office situation, especially when there is a huge power imbalance between the stressor (a supervisor) and the stressee (the employee).  Freezing can be almost indistinguishable from the other “F” strategy I mentioned above, namely, “fold”, i.e., submission, since it is often the case that doing nothing is tantamount to submission (although in some instances it can be a passive-aggressive response). Moreover, both of these superficially resemble another stress-management strategy, “forget”—namely to ignore the stressor and/or the stress, in a wise-guy “fuhgedd aboud it” way.

Navigating Above Stress in Your F-17

Because we humans have higher-order cognitive capabilities, we can employ sophisticated, emotion, volition or cognition-based stress management techniques that other species of animals, like zebras, may not have available to them—at least not to the same degree. Whereas, “fight”, “flee”, “fold” and “freeze”  (and maybe “forget”) are common to most species of mammals, a sixth strategy, “frame”, is far less likely to be observed in the rest of the animal kingdom. “Frame” is another of the 17 stress control responses beginning with the letter “F” that Dr. Robert Kissner (for whom I have done social science research), CEO of Lifelogix.com, a Vancouver stress and trauma management research company, calls the “F-17”.

“Frame” involves perceptually and/or intellectually “reframing” the stress situation to make it more manageable. For example, if, instead of framing a cancelled appointment as a crisis, you frame it as an opportunity to follow up a couple of other leads, a more constructive behavioral response will flow from your having framed the situation differently (“reframing”).

Dr. Kissner’s advice for any employee facing chronic interpersonal workplace stress is to “identify and pay attention to not only the unique dimensions of your own stress, but also to the dimensions of the stressors acting on others.” If you do this, you may be able to reframe your stress response as well as your stressor, by shifting your attention to the causes of an antagonist’s stress, away from an over-focus on the effects of that associate’s behavior on you. You may also more insightfully view your own stress systemically—as an interplay of variables more numerous and complex than a simplistic “my boss is mean” or “this job is too chaotic” summation would suggest.

If you can skillfully and wisely select which stress-management response to use, when to use it, with whom and to what degree, you may very well earn your stripes…

….as an honorary zebra.

Like this article? Subscribe today! We also offer tons of free eBooks on career and recruiting topics - check out Get a Better Job the Right Way and Why It Matters Who Does Your Recruiting.
in Stress Management]