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Stress and Your Body

Stress and Your Body

Professor Robert Sapolsky Ph.D.
Stanford University
Course No.  1585
Course No.  1585
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Feeling stressed? You're not alone. Stress is an inherent aspect of life in the 21st-century world. Regardless of the cause, stress is bound to affect you at some point during your day or week.

And stress can have tremendous negative effects on your mental and physical health. Most Western diseases that slowly get us sick—heart disease, diabetes, stroke—are worsened by stress. Chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and depression often flare up during repeated instances of stress. This makes coping with stress a critical part of how well we live.

But take heart. Because once you understand the inner workings of our stress response system and its inextricable links to all aspects of your personal health, you'll find yourself in possession of powerful knowledge that will help you understand and better deal with this common aspect of your busy life.

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Feeling stressed? You're not alone. Stress is an inherent aspect of life in the 21st-century world. Regardless of the cause, stress is bound to affect you at some point during your day or week.

And stress can have tremendous negative effects on your mental and physical health. Most Western diseases that slowly get us sick—heart disease, diabetes, stroke—are worsened by stress. Chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and depression often flare up during repeated instances of stress. This makes coping with stress a critical part of how well we live.

But take heart. Because once you understand the inner workings of our stress response system and its inextricable links to all aspects of your personal health, you'll find yourself in possession of powerful knowledge that will help you understand and better deal with this common aspect of your busy life.

Now, from one of the world's foremost researchers on stress and neurobiology comes Stress and Your Body—a fascinating 24-lecture course that guides you through the psychological and psychosocial stress that is a central part of everyday life in Western society. With the guidance of Dr. Robert Sapolsky, acclaimed Professor of Biology, Neurology, and Neurosurgery at Stanford University and one of our most popular professors, you'll explore the nuts and bolts of the stress-response system and its various effects on your body.

What, Exactly, Is Stress?

Simply put, the stress-response system is a natural, highly adaptive survival system. Imagine you're a zebra being chased by a lion across some grassy savannah. Once you've recognized the threat, your stress-response system will divert energy from storage sites throughout your body to your muscles and inhibit unessential processes like digestion and reproduction, allowing you to flee faster from danger.

For animals, of course, coping with stress isn't a big deal; once they've escaped danger, their bodies and minds soon return to a balanced state. But for humans under chronic stress, there is rarely such a return.

Why? Because, for humans, the stress response is triggered not so much by life-or-death situations as by psychological reasons it wasn't designed to combat, such as

  • traffic tie-ups that double the time it takes for you to get to work;
  • complicated home repairs you haven't gotten around to making;
  • troublesome thoughts and recurring memories; and
  • worries about the economy, the environment, and international events.

In fact, as you quickly discover in this lecture series, the chronic stress that most of us face every day can turn the stress response from a safety mechanism into a real problem for our physical and mental well-being.

At the heart of any serious discussion of the impact of chronic stress on your body and mind lie some pointed questions:

  • How does everyday stress affect the way your brain behaves?
  • Why do some people adapt to stress more easily than others?
  • What occurs at the neurological level during periods of emotional trauma?
  • Why does stress not just impact your mind (where it's rooted) but your body as well?
  • Why does stress prompt you to do certain things, like eat and sleep more (or less)?

The science behind these and other questions is captivating in its intricacies.

Explore the Biology of Stress ...

With the same dynamic teaching skills that won him the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching—Stanford's highest teaching honor—Professor Sapolsky guides you through the specific systems of your body in the search for the biological effects of stress. He first details how the stress response normally works for both humans and the hypothetical hunted zebra, then delves into what happens to these systems when the stress response doesn't shut down.

Among the specific organ systems you explore in Stress and Your Body are these:

  • Cardiovascular system: When stress hits, your blood pressure and heart rate rise, and blood is diverted from nonessential areas (like your gut) to critical ones (such as your muscles). When activated chronically, however, the stress-response system can damage your heart muscles and blood vessels.
  • Digestive system: Chronic stress can wreak havoc with your digestive system and can even shut it down. This can lead to debilitating diseases and problems with your digestion.
  • Reproductive system: Not only is chronic stress directly related to problems with reproduction, it affects the reproductive systems of men and women in different ways. Sustained stress can decrease the likelihood of ovulation and increase erectile dysfunction. For both sexes, however, libido is often greatly impaired.
  • Immune system: Your immune system is designed to protect you from all sorts of pathogens. Unfortunately, when hit repeatedly with stress, your immune defenses are often impaired, resulting in more frequent, prolonged, or severe cases of diseases ranging from mononucleosis to the common cold.

This systems approach helps you better grasp the detailed science and biology behind stress. It also allows you to draw pointed comparisons with stress's effects on individual systems of the body—sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously. You'll quickly discover that stress doesn't affect just one part of the body, but it also has a domino effect in which your entire body can become damaged by the effects of chronic stress.

You'll also get a chance to explore the physiological effects of stress on other parts of your health, including your

  • physical growth and development,
  • sleep cycle,
  • memory and judgment, and
  • pain threshold.

... and the Psychology of Stress

But the biology of stress is only one-half of the puzzle. Stress and Your Body also brings you up close and personal with the psychological underpinnings and effects of stress. There are powerful psychological factors that modulate how we respond to stress and that are instrumental in damaging not just our brains—but our psyches.

Among the psychological disorders and damaging behaviors that Professor Sapolsky explores are

  • depression, the genetics of which are indelibly linked to the genetics of one's vulnerability to stress;
  • anxiety, which is rooted in the amygdala—a part of our brain that is extremely sensitive to one class of stress hormones; and
  • addiction, which can be directly related to increased levels of stress hormones in the body, whether it's an addiction to drugs or to new sensations.

Additionally, an individual's place in society plays a key role in both the creation and impact of stress. Toward the end of the course, you'll spend some time studying the relationship between low socioeconomic status and high stress levels—along with the poor health to which they lead.

Discover the Key to Change

With Stress and Your Body, you'll be learning about this integral—for better or worse—aspect of daily life from an engaging and insightful teacher. Professor Sapolsky knows just how important it is to understand the workings of stress, but he also flavors his lectures with humor and practical tips for stress management that you can incorporate into your lifestyle.

Professor Sapolsky's unique teaching methods, in which profound insights, eye-opening concepts, and rigorous scientific support are intertwined with an informal delivery style, make the study of this topic absolutely illuminating.

"It's possible for us to change," he notes with characteristic enthusiasm at one point in Stress and Your Body. "It's hard in terms of there being no free lunch. But nonetheless, change can occur."

And the key to changing the impact of stress in your life, whether at work or at home, is a thorough knowledge of how and why it works on your mind and body. All of which you'll find right here in these dynamic lectures.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    Why Don't Zebras Get Ulcers? Why Do We?
    In Professor Sapolsky's introductory lecture, get a behind-the-scenes look at the science of stress and preview the groundwork for the course ahead. What exactly happens to our bodies when we come under stress? And how is our response to stress different from that of a zebra being hunted al ong a savannah? x
  • 2
    The Nuts and Bolts of the Stress-Response
    Every time you have a thought or emotion, things change in your body. Here, explore the two factors responsible for these changes: the nervous system and hormones. Learn how these systems work, how they're regulated, and—most important—what happens to them during moments of stress. x
  • 3
    Stress and Your Heart
    Armed with the necessary background information, explore how specific organ systems suffer when faced with chronic stress. In the first of a series of lectures on this subject, learn how long-term stress can damage heart muscles, inflame and clog blood vessels, and even lead to sudden cardiac arrest. x
  • 4
    Stress, Metabolism, and Liquidating Your Assets
    The next organ system you focus on: the metabolic system. Discover how cycles of chronic stress lead to a persistent activating and storing of energy, which in turn can lead to an inefficient use of energy and play a critical role in the prevalence of adult-onset diabetes. x
  • 5
    Stress, Overeating, and Your Digestive Tract
    Focus now on the role stress plays in our gastrointestinal tracts. Why do most of us eat more during stressful periods? How does stress affect bowel disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and spastic colons? And how does stress combine with a bacterial infection to produce a common stress-related disease: ulcers? x
  • 6
    Stress and Growth—Echoes from the Womb
    The first of two lectures on stress and child development takes you inside prenatal and postnatal life. Using two extraordinary examples, Professor Sapolsky reveals the ways a fetus can respond to the environmental stressors of its mother, and how different parenting styles can affect the stress levels of young children. x
  • 7
    Stress, Growth, and Child Development
    Investigate how chronic stress can disrupt the growth of young children by focusing on stress dwarfism and the connection between stress and low growth hormone levels. Also, learn how mid-20th-century experiments with monkeys proved how important love—and not just nutrients—is in raising less-stressful children. x
  • 8
    Stress and Female Reproduction
    Get an insightful overview of the multifaceted effects of stress on the female reproductive system. Some of the topics you explore are the intricate relationships between stress and fertilization, ovulation, spontaneous miscarriages, high-tech in vitro fertilization, and the strength of the libido. x
  • 9
    Stress and Male Reproduction
    Despite being simpler than its female counterpart, the male reproductive system is just as vulnerable to chronic stress. Here, discover how stress leads not to a major decrease in testosterone so much as an increase in erectile dysfunction (with a focus on two of the most common symptoms: impotency and premature ejaculation). x
  • 10
    Stress and Your Immune System
    Turn now to the relationship between stress and your immune system. After mastering the basics of how this system works, delve into how frequent stressors can result in flare-ups of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, can increase your vulnerability to infections like the common cold and herpes viruses, and more. x
  • 11
    Stress and Cancer
    Can an increase in stress actually cause cancer? Can it cause a relapse among patients in remission, or speed up the rate of a cancer's progression? Professor Sapolsky offers his insights on these and other controversial questions and myths about the possible links between stress and cancer. x
  • 12
    Stress and Pain
    Stress and pain have an intriguing relationship: Stress can increase your sensitivity and resistance to pain, while pain constitutes its own particular stressor. Explore this fascinating bidirectional relationship, and expand your knowledge of how both balanced and stressed minds and bodies react to all varieties of pain. x
  • 13
    Stress, Learning, and Memory
    Memory—whether implicit or explicit—is an essential part of everyday life. So it's all the more important to understand how it's affected by stress. This lecture explains the science behind how short-term stress enhances memory and learning, while chronic stress may actually work to kill neurons in the hippocampus. x
  • 14
    Stress, Judgment, and Impulse Control
    In addition to affecting the hippocampus, stress can prove harmful to the frontal cortex as well—the seat of behavioral regulation. As in previous lectures, discover what happens to this essential part of the brain when it comes under attack from chronic stress. x
  • 15
    Stress, Sleep, and Lack of Sleep
    Most of us don't get as much sleep as we should. Yet the amount of sleep we get is highly intertwined with how our bodies deal with stress. Investigate why high levels of stress disrupt not only how long we sleep—but the quality of sleep's vital restorative powers as well. x
  • 16
    Stress and Aging
    As you age, your ability to deal with stress decreases. What's more: Lots of stress throughout your lifetime can accelerate aspects of aging. Here, examine a series of intriguing experiments and studies that explain the science behind these two views about the intersection between stress and aging. x
  • 17
    Understanding Psychological Stress
    Why are some stressors more unbearable than others? This lecture introduces you to three powerful psychological factors that work to modulate the stress response: having an outlet, taking advantage of social support, and having predictive information about when and how long a stressor will occur. x
  • 18
    Psychological Modulators of Stress
    Conclude your look at ways to modulate the stress response by looking at two subtler variables: your control over the stressor, and your interpretation of whether the stress is getting better or worse. You also see why, despite being enormously powerful, these variables can work only within certain parameters. x
  • 19
    Stress and the Biology of Depression
    Turn to the realm of mental health with this close look at the ties between stress and major depression—one of the leading causes of disability in the world. Start with an overview of the disorder's symptoms before delving into the particulars of its neurochemistry and neuroanatomy. x
  • 20
    Stress and the Psychology of Depression
    To truly understand clinical depression, you need to grasp its psychological aspects as well. In the second lecture on stress and this prevalent disease, explore the pivotal role stress hormones play in depression. Then, use your newfound knowledge of stress to knit together the psychological and biological models of depression. x
  • 21
    Anxiety, Hostility, Repression, and Reward
    Anxiety disorders, feelings of intense hostility, a decreased capacity for pleasure, and a repressed or addictive persona are just a few of the many distinct effects that chronic stress can have on an individual's personality and behavior. The ways these psychological disorders emerge are the subject of this fascinating lecture. x
  • 22
    Stress, Health, and Low Social Status
    How strong a role does socioeconomic status play in what stressors you're exposed to, as well as your potential for chronic stress? It's a provocative question whose answer Professor Sapolsky reveals in this penetrating look at the characteristics and effects of psychosocial stress on both primates and humans. x
  • 23
    Stress Management—Clues to Success?
    Before learning tips to manage chronic stress, it's essential to understand why certain individuals cope better with stress—both physically and mentally—than others. Discover that the key lies in grasping predictors of successful aging, including a position of respect, a resilient personality, a healthy lifestyle, and a realistic approach to life's challenges. x
  • 24
    Stress Management—Approaches and Cautions
    Exercise. Meditation. Social support. Religious beliefs. In this concluding lecture, learn how these and other outlets can potentially help you manage life's everyday stressors—both biologically and psychologically. Regardless of how many stressors you deal with daily, all of us, according to Professor Sapolsky, have the potential to keep them in perspective. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Sapolsky
Ph.D. Robert Sapolsky
Stanford University
Dr. Robert Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford's School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his A.B. summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York. He is also a research associate at the Institute of Primate Research operated by the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. Dr. Sapolsky is a recipient of a MacArthur genius fellowship. His teaching awards include Stanford University's Bing Award for Teaching Excellence and an award for outstanding teaching from the Associated Students of Stanford University. Professor Sapolsky is the author of several books, including Stress, the Aging Brain and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death (MIT Press, 1992); The Trouble with Testosterone (Macmillan Library Reference, 1997); and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (W.H. Freeman, 1995), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He also regularly contributes to magazines and journals such as Discover, Science, Scientific American, Harper's, and The New Yorker.
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 70 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Masterful Dr Sapolsky is a living encyclopedia when it comes to neurobiology, genetics, anthropology, human and animal behavior. The best part is that he shares his knowledge in such a way that makes difficult concepts easy to understand, besides that sometimes he can be hilarious, keeping you engaged and entertained. Very few professors have that gift. November 6, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Entertaining and Highly Informative I usually listen to several courses in a day....an hour here...an hour there. I found the story told here to be so compelling that I listened to it straight through. I am amazed that stress is so pervasive in every aspect of our lives as well as the lives of animals and all sorts of organisms. Dr. Sapolsky goes way beyond just stress. I found the lecture about depression to be especially meaningful given that I have been tackling this illness for several decades of my life. I have earned several advanced degrees, but have never experienced a professor as insightful, humorous and and passionate about his subject as Dr. Sapolsky. I highly recommend this course. June 29, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fantastic on many levels I can't say enough good things about this course! The professor is fabulous, with a wonderful dry sense of humor that is never used inappropriately; he is solemn during the lecture on cancer and hysterical when looking at the reproductive system (his stream-of-consciousness tangent on hyenas is particularly entertaining). On a content note, you get a lot with this course. Buried in the material is a head-to-toe look at physiology and neurophysiology, with pathophysiology thrown in as it relates to the stress response. On that alone, it's a bargain. Throw in the true insights into the causes, manifestations, and management of stress you can gain from the material, and it's an easy thumbs way up. July 14, 2011
Rated 5 out of 5 by A GREAT OWNER'S MANUAL FOR YOUR BODY When I first saw the release of this course, I was quite interested in the subject and the related sub-topics. However, I was turned off from purchasing it for one reason: The appearance of the professor. Nevertheless, in time, I realized that I was 'judging a book by its' cover" and I began to re-think my faulty thinking. In addition, I was in an ultra-high stress situation, (Both Professional and Personal) and felt that such information could be valuable. After completing this course, I have to say that is one of the BEST investments that I have ever made in my life. Dr. Sapolsky's presentation is very calm, relaxed, and low-key. His speaking voice and mannerisms are quite calming, just as if he is having his own consultation with you. The DVD version is excellent, and the new enhanced graphics are quite clear. The professor keeps the 'big-words' to a minimum, and they are always well explained and illustrated. The use of case studies from real life examples add even more to the presentations. As other reviews here have indicated, he starts with the foundation in the first lecture, getting your attention with practical examples. The second lecture explains the biology/physiology involved in the stress process. This information is often refered to in all of the following lectures. Next, Dr Sapolsky examines the major organ sytems in the body, and the negative effect that stress can have on these systems. One thing that really impressed me about the professors' approach to the Male/Reproductive systems' relation to stress is this: his candidness and frankness. Realizing that this material, by its' very nature, can be sensitive and personal in nature, he adds that TTC staff has carefully considered the substance of this particular part of the course. It should be understood, however, that if you have children around, it might be wise for you to first view these two lessons to see if they are appropriate for young members of your household. The course continues with all the other major body systems, each time examining the effect that stress can, and does have, on each particular system. About midway through the course, an expansion into the effect of stress on broader applications of daily life takes place. Such topics such as learning, memory, sleeping, aging, judgement control, depression, and others, are considered. The final two lectures deal with possible things to consider in the control of stress in our lives. In my opinion, the "take-away"message is that be gained, is the awareness of all of these factors. Many stressors in our life are beyond our control, but with the knowledge gained, can enable one to make better informed decisions in our lives. Other reviews have well indicated that there is no 'magic-bullet' given here; rather, as mentioned above, being aware of the effect of stressors in our lives can go a long way with how each one chooses to deal with stress. Finally, while TTC lists this course is listed under the "Healthy Living" category, I feel that it should be listed also as a "Science and Mathematics" one as well. The physiological operations of the body given are very fascinating from a scientific point of view. Thank you, Dr. Sapolsky, for a great educational experience!! December 27, 2010
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