Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Over the summer of 2003, which ranks overall as the third-worst summer of my life, there was a lone, shining bright spot: Kim, a wine-guzzling cougar who doubled as my Biopsychology professor and moonlighted as a regular bar patron at my tavern.

The text of choice for her class: a book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” an entertaining script that analyzed in humorous yet comprehensive clarity the relationship between stress, inflammation and mental health.

It’s the lone college textbook I never pawned off at one of those book-buyback programs, where you’d sign your books away for $5 and a free T-shirt.

The book postulates that humans’ modern lifestyle is ill-suited for stress. In primitive life forms like Zebras and Swedish people, stress is acute: Running away from a lion triggers a flight-or-fight response, whereas in today’s world, stress like worrying about making the bills or wondering if you’ll die from Huntington’s Disease for no apparent reason is chronic, and that constant edginess actually causes your cortisol levels to shoot through the roof and leads to things like anxiety, panic, high blood pressure and heart disease.

It was tonight that I realized how right the book really was, coincidentally as I was pouring through “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

See, when I mentioned that 2003 was only the third-worst summer of my life, I am including Summer 2012, which has claimed the Top Spot and Instant Classic Status as a Hall-of-Fame stressful summer, during which I:

  • Lost my job
  • Lost my health insurance
  • Contracted pneumonia
  • Lost my freelance work
  • Dealt with struggles of not getting paid by clients of mine for whom I’d completed a ghost-writing project
  • Entered a lengthy battle with a former employer over my rights to my 401K money
  • Struggled with eating healthy due to a lack of incoming funds
  • Ran out of unemployment benefits
  • Spent 7 months trying to secure a new job
  • Got evicted
  • Moved out of Austin
  • Struggled with weakness, fatigue and a lack of exercise
  • Had my car repossessed
  • Spent several nights couch-crashing and taking residence in my car
  • Commuted back-and-forth from San Antonio to Austin
  • Paid off some $8000 in old debt
  • Started a new job
  • Moved to a new apartment

It’s an exhaustive list, and, thankfully, doesn’t include the kind of real stress that comes from dealing with terminal illness or death of a loved one or divorce, but put together, the events crushed my psyche and compounded until my stress response reached it’s breaking point this past week.

I spent several nights with chest pains, heart palpitations, throat closings, asthma attacks (with no preventative medicine, since Advair costs roughly the same as a car payment), headaches, fatigue, dizziness, depression, obsessive worry and hypochondria.

Stress had gotten to me – and gotten to me big time. I made it my mission this year to fight in head-on, but exercise (especially in cold weather) was only further contributing to my delirious madness, as within the first mile, I would have to stop running for fear that I was having a heart attack. This frustrated me, panicked me, and caused even further distress. S.O.S. Mayday. It’s all over.

Removing stress is one component, but my diet wasn’t helping: A steady stream of carbs (mainly pasta and beer) and cholesterol (red meat) further sent my inflammation response through the roof. A lack of access to my anti-inflammatory asthma medications left me breathless.

In the spirit of keeping this to just 30 minutes, I’ll close here.

A lot of what I wrote yesterday, my goals for the new year, is designed to decrease stress and inflammation in my life. Diet from the “Blue Zones” where people live forever are very anti-inflammatory. I bought a stability ball to build my strength up without sending my stress response into overdrive, until I am ready to run again. I grabbed Proventil for my asthma. I’m cutting down on beer and switching to wine. The writing will be cathartic. The reading will be relaxing. Spending less money will give me peace of mind, as will paying off debt. I made an appointment with a therapist. I’m planning on talking to friends and family more.

I’ll calibrate this as I go, the rest I will figure out later and tweak as I continue to move closer to my goal. Right now, I’m a total wreck. This will be my journey out of it, and I will document it here. Hopefully, I’ll even get better at writing as I do this, so that I’ll reclaim my voice and one day be able to wax poetic about sports and music and culture and maybe even finish the Thirtyist series I had to abandon when life just got too damn real.

More tomorrow. Be peace.


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