Book Report of Why Zebras Do Not Get Ulcers


For many people today, stress is a huge part of their daily lives while for some, it is a far between and rare occurrence. People get stressed over life-changing situations while sometimes anxiety kicks in even on the minute situations. It is how we each deal with stress that really makes the difference in our lives. Make no mistake, overcoming stressful circumstances can be overwhelming, but we each are designed to handle every situation to the best of our abilities as long as we have the will. Why Zebras Do Not Get Ulcers by Dr. Robert Sapolsky is an interesting and insightful book with a tinge of humor. It explains the similarities and contrasts between how humans and animals responses to stress and the impact of each response. The author dives into the complex psychological details in order to explain the concept of stress and its effects. Truthfully, this is not a ‘Chicken soup’ or ‘scented candles’ stress-relief kind of book, however, Sapolsky provides important and groundbreaking knowledge on stress and managing its impact. The following book report analyses the book WHY ZEBRAS DO NOT GET ULCERS, providing a detailed review of issues addressed by the author regarding the element of stress in humans and animals. The report also identifies key issues that the author brings out in terms of the implication of stress in relation to human social issues.


Summary of Why Zebras Do Not Get Ulcers

The first edition of the book by was published in 1994 with subsequent releases of the second and third editions in 1998 and 2004 respectively. As a leading Neurological and biologist professor at the University of Stanford, Dr Sapolsky has had the privilege to carry out extensive research on primates and numerous experiments on the psychological disposition of stress indicators and their different responses. Growing up, Dr Sapolsky’s wish was to live among apes, to interact and study their way of life. Later on in life, Sapolsky moved to Africa and lived with baboons there as well as carrying out research on primates in Kenya. During a spring conference in 2000, Dr Sapolsky greatly celebrated the work of neuroscience in understanding the structure and function of the human body. His presentation at the conference was a mark of excellence as he gave a powerful message on the impact and implications of stress on the human brain and body. The main message derived from Dr Sapolsky’s presentation was that continuous accumulation of stress gradually suppresses the immune systems, preventing growth, corroding learning abilities and eating away memories. According to Sapolsky, stress kills slowly when there no efforts to suppress its impact. While living in Africa, Dr Sapolsky began numerous studies on the stress responses among animals and how it correlates to the human responses to stress. Through his research work, Sapolsky identified the similarities and differences in responses to stress between humans and animals. He also identified how such varying responses affect the general well being of human beings and animals. 

Why Zebras Do Not Get Ulcers acts as a guide to stress and stress-related conditions together with the provision of propositions on how best to cope with stress. The book provides an in-depth introduction into the science and psychology of stress and its implication when poorly managed. Unlike numerous books in the mass market today on health and science, this book takes a cross sectional approach in identifying the role of scientific experiments in the understanding of stress today. The author derives the title of the book from the knowledge that animals such as zebras only experience episodic stress i.e. a zebras will experience stress only when being chased by a lion. Human beings on the other hand, experience chronic stress; continuous stress generally over everything such as worrying about losing a job position or stressing about a relationship. The main idea behind the author’s book is the ability of wild animals to experience only episodic stress thus becoming susceptible to stress related conditions such as ulcers. Human beings often experience chronic stress, hence vulnerable to disorders resulting from stress levels such as ulcers, decreased neurogenesis and hypertension. However, some animals such as apes do also experience chronic stress since they are inclined to the lower social hierarchy that is closely related to man. 

The author further discusses the psychological changes that the body undergoes during stress periods which affect the sympathetic nervous system in the body. Notably, the author briefly moves away from the biological implications of stress and addresses the social impact of stress in the society. Socially speaking, Sapolsky explains how chronic stress has tremendous negative implications on social issues such as poverty, social trauma, child bullying and abuse. He concludes that due to the impact of stress, there is an increased risk of diseases prevalence and disabilities in the society. Due to the author’s ability to discuss the psychological complexity of stress using a powerful craft of incorporating science and real life issues he greatly provides reader credibility.

Effects of Stress to Major Social Issues

A homeostatic balance is a state where an animal or a human being is in complete harmony with all factors in the external and internal environments. The disruption of this state of ‘harmony’ and its impact is basically primarily describes as stress. A zebra for instance experiences stress when a lion in leaps out of nowhere and begins chasing the zebra with the clear intensions of ripping apart the zebra. The zebra responds by running as fast as possible with the hope that it can outrun the lion. At this point, the homeostatic balance of the zebra has been disrupted and the zebra is in turn experiencing episodic stress. The span in which zebras experience any level of stress lasts for a very small amount of time. It takes only a matter of approximately three minutes for a zebra to face terror and fear. Afterwards, the zebra is either dead or out in the savannahs, minding its own business and feeling safe once more. This is what studies refer to as episodic stress, which manifests itself only for a given period of time then return of normalcy.

On the other hand, humans respond to stress with a series of anticipatory senses such being anxious or paranoid. As human beings whenever we feel that our homeostatic balance is about to be disturbed, anticipatory stress responses follow and easily spun out of control. Unlike animals, the zebra in particular, stress in human beings is generated by thoughts that turn chronic. As a result, human beings are prone to stress related disorders such as ulcers, conditions that do not affect many animals since their response to stress only lasts a few minutes.

In order to understand the effects of stress in relation to social issues, the brain is an important organ that provides adequate information on how the body functions in response to stressing situations. Human stress response is a devastating process due to the chronically nature that human beings display in responding to stress. Every vertebrate is biologically designed to respond to stressful situations by secreting stress hormones such as glucocorticoid and adrenalin to the brain. The secretion of hormones simultaneously increases the energy levels and increases the heart rate. Essentially, for many animals, the release of stress hormones to the brain is paramount to survival. It is the ‘fight or flight’ response that greatly aids animals to outdo their predators when danger strikes. Therefore, most animals are able to manage the secretion of stress hormones both in the short and long periods of time.

However, human beings portray a significantly different response to stress hormones compared to animals. While research indicates that approximately the same amount of stress hormones secreted in animals is also released in humans, there is still a varying difference hormonal outcome. For example, there is student preparing for an exam by cramming. The student is clearly stressed due to inadequate preparations and stress hormones are secreted to the brain. The secretion of the hormones largely increase oxygen supply and nutrients to the brain, therefore, the student is able to perform well within the first few hours. Soon after the six-hour mark crosses, the metabolism of the student drops, lowering his thinking capacity and the ability to retrieve memories fades away. This is a clear indication that humans’ stress hormones are only effective in the short term and become increasingly damaging in long periods of time. Therefore, high quantities of stress hormones in man and over long periods of time are harmful. They generate irreversible neuronal processes that can cause devastating stress levels if little is done to counter the stressful circumstances.

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Importantly, there is hope in responding to stress among humans, all is not lost. The process of renewing oneself from stress to the normal state of mind is referred to as the revolutionary process. In addition, new studies show that the brain has the ability to create new neurons to replace that damaged or lost neurons during stressful experiences. Such studies refute traditional views that once brain cells are damaged they are damaged forever. Therefore, it is important to understand that stress block the building of new neurons. In order to overcome stress within the shortest period, new stimulations such as a fresh new environment are essential ways to boost the formation of new brain cells which can be termed as ‘stress-free’.

There is immense hope that stress does not necessary have to be a long time experience. As humans, we have a biological ability to renew ourselves only when certain conducive aspects are maintained. Unfortunately, even though the hippocampus in the human brain has the ability to regenerate, this is not the applicable in every stress-related circumstance. There are different types of stress levels and each has its own impact on the human body. Increased social issues such as child abuse, poverty and other traumatic experiences largely generate huge amounts of stress that are impeccably difficult to handle. Individuals who have endured extreme stress such as soldiers in the battle fields, sexual abused children, or persons living in object poverty for many years are often considered to suffer prolonged stress. This is due to the permanent damage of the hippocampus. The damaged hippocampus losses its capability to regenerate new brain cells thus resulting to loss of memory and limiting the ability of a person to overcome stress.

The effects of stress in relation to these social issues results to a frequent psychopathology condition commonly known as depression. Depression can either be short or long term. Long term depression is the most devastating condition and gradually kills a person from the inside causing permanent damage to the brain and deterring any form of growth and development. The impact of depression on children whose brains should be able to sustain growth is enormously severe and ten-folds of what the adult brain can handle. It is saddening to realize that young children who should be the epitome of development are reduced to unproductive human beings with a cessation to growth. They also suffer from a series of disorders such as Addison’s disease, colitis, sexual dysfunction, arteriosclerosis and numerable neurological damages. What is even more puzzling is that such stress related conditions are results of social issues which are often poorly if not inadequately addressed. 

The issues of child bullying and child abuse continue to thrive in our societies despite efforts to curb the vices. For some, child bullying may seem like a minor offensive that does not require vast attention. However, stress generated from such bullying can be the detrimental in the future growth and development of the child in question. Sapolsky narrates the experience of a young boy who was raised in psychologically abusive environment. When the boy was rescued and hospitalized, he showed zero hormonal growth in his blood. He did not have any feelings toward anyone or anything as a result of the abusive setting. Two months later, a kind nurse who had been attending to the boy developed a close relationship with him. Amazingly, the hormonal levels in the boy’s bloodstream significantly zoomed back to normalcy, indicating that indeed this was his first hormonal relationship. Interestingly, when the nurse went on vacation, the boy’s hormonal levels greatly dropped and sprung back when the nurse returned.

A lesson that Sapolsky hopes his audience can learn from this narration is the impact of stress on the human body and brain. Stress can affect the entire functioning of a person, rendering them unproductive in every possible way. The story of the young boy indicates how his body was able to respond well in situations where he felt loved and safe, integral human elements that are deteriorating in our societies today.  Moreover, issues of abuse, poverty, discrimination are adversely generating continuous stress levels. It is difficult for a person who has faced constant pain and hurt to spring back to life as a functional human being. Looking at the zebra, if by any chance the lion fails to kill it, it bounces back to its habitat and continues with its life as though nothing serious has happened a few minutes ago. Due to chronic stress responses, human beings find it hard to leap back and continue with life especially amid continuous social struggles. Although, all is not lost, the ability to effectively deal with stress is the light at the end of the tunnel.

The depressing facts on stress and its effects on the social lives of human beings and some primates are of great concern. Therefore, the provision of some positive information on how best to cope with stress and gain control even when plunged into a sea of stressful situations comes in handy. Admittedly, stress cannot be avoided, it is applicable in every human being, how you cope with it is what makes the difference. One of the most essential tool is the ability to have someone to lean on, basically a shoulder to cry on. It may appear as a simple gesture that may not have much impact but there are many social issues that could have been handled well if only someone had a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, it is all that is needed in this world, having someone to walk with when sprawling into tough times. Personally, I believe that the social isolation verses social affiliation conflict is the largest predator of our modern day mortality. Coping with stress requires the strength to overcome social isolation challenges. If more people become concerned about one another, then the effects of stress would not be as severe as they are on the human race.

Proposal for Policy Change

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there are a growing number of persons suffering from stress and stress related diseases. More concerning is the number of young people who are showing massive signs of depression at very early stages in life. Moreover, many Canadians have admitted that stress negatively impacts their lives reducing their daily productivity. Although several policies are already in place, a change in policy would effectively turn around the increased levels of a stressed population. The proposed policy changes take into consideration the modern date stress triggers suggestions on how well to manage stress. The proposed policy change entails the following:

- Work stress is commonly experienced with a majority of Canadians. The establishment of employee assistance programs in every organization will effectively aid in handling stress related to the work place

- Promotion of mental health and wellbeing initiatives across all schools as a means of creating awareness among children who are also undergoing stress from schools. 

- Training of educators on stress indicators and supporting school- based help programs in order to ensure that children who are afraid of speak out due to fear can be identified and given appropriate help.

- Establishment of community support groups that promote wellbeing across homes. Moreover, the community programs should be empowered to identify and report extreme cases of social issues that can be mentally harmful to other people such as abuse to the relative authorities.


Constant worrying and anxiety are the hallmarks of stress. Stress is a common occurrence among most living organisms, whether you are an animal or a human being. The differences come in understanding the varying levels of stress, the different types of stress and how best to manage stressful situations. Every human being living on planet earth has some certain proportion of stress to deal with at a particular point in their lives. It is inevitable to live in a utopian state of mind and even the most perceived happiest people in the world have their fair share of stress. In his book, Sapolsky shares a powerful message about stress and the human response. The comparison between animal response and human response is enlightenment to the reader on how human beings have constantly turned stress into a chronic experience. As an author, he has managed achieves his objective of defining the scope of stress response in animals and humans by providing comprehensive evidence and insights into the matter. Sapolsky cheerfully concludes his presentation with a hope a hope in coping with stress especially in regard to social issues. He states that as human beings, we have the potentials to overcome the barriers of stress, if only we wisely seek the correct means to deal with.

Mar 4, 2019 in Research
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