Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Book Review

Did you know most animals do not get ulcers? Or suffer these kinds of physical ailments from stress? To be honest I never really thought about this before reading this book. If you’re not familiar with Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, I can’t say I’m surprised. I only heard about the book when I was taking an 8-hour online course during my practicum. But it sounded interested. The subtitle is The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. If you have a chronic illness then this may be a good read to get some more understanding.

I bought it off of Amazon, but it should be available at your local bookstore or library as well.

What I liked about the book:
To start off, the subject matter is interesting. We hear a lot about how stress is involved with chronic illness, but how exactly does that work? That’s what this book aims to explain. It also gives anecdotes from the animal kingdom in every chapter, explaining how different animals react to stressors. The primary focus of the book is certainly on the physiological responses to stress, so there is a lot about the brain in their, with a touch of psychological responses (I would’ve preferred more). Overall it uses the biopsychosocial approach, which I definitely stand behind. There is also a chapter on stress-management, which is helpful.
The chapters are as follows: (1) Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers? (2) Glands, Gooseflesh and Hormones, (3) Stroke, Heart Attacks and Voodoo Death, (4) Stress, Metabolism, and Liquidating Your Assets, (5) Ulcers, the Runs, and Hot Fudge Sundaes, (6) Dwarfism and the Importance of Mothers, (7) Sex and Reproduction, (8) Immunity, Stress and Disease, (9) Stress and Pain, (10) Stress and Memory, (11) Stress and a Good Night’s Sleep, (12) Aging and Death, (13) Why is Psychological Stress Stressful? (14) Stress and Depression, (15) Personality, Temperament, and Their Stress-Related Consequences, (16) Junkies, Adrenaline Junkies, and Pleasure, (17) The View from the Bottom, and (18) Managing Stress.
If any of this sounds relevant to you, it may be worth checking out this book.

One of my stress management techniques (since childhood).

What I Didn’t Like About the Book: There are a few drawbacks to the book in my opinion. First, it’s pretty sciency. He does try to make it readable for lay people, but even with my masters in counselling psychology, I got a little overwhelmed by the neuroscience aspect of the book, which was a lot of it. So be prepared to wade through if you want to read it. The other thing I didn’t like was his use of language, which was very outdated. For example, he constantly referred to people with depression as “depressives,” which is stigmatizing and just not right in my opinion. He did this with other conditions as well. It brings up with the people first vs. illness first argument, which I’m not going to get into here, but it bothered me, as a person (and as a mental health professional).

Would I recommend it? Yes. Look, overall I think there is a ton of great and interesting info in there. Will it make you feel better? Not necessarily, but I’m all for having a better understanding of what’s going on in my body, that way I can take appropriate steps to help myself. For example, mindfulness has a large evidence base of helping with stress, and I therefore, practice meditation and other mindfulness techniques on a regular basis.

A mindful moment.

As I keep reading, I’ll keep sharing. And I hope you all keep making the most of it!

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Book Review: When the Body Says No

If you haven’t heard of this book and you have a chronic illness you need to get in the know. And to be fair, and I hadn’t heard of the book until about a year ago, and I didn’t actually read it until recently. The author I had heard of. Dr. Gabor Mate. He has written several books over the years on topics ranging from chronic illness to substance abuse to ADHD, and he’s quite well-known in both the self-help and medical communities. So, now that I’m done reading this (must-read) book, let me share some thoughts and opinions, and hopefully help encourage you to also give it a read.

It’s available at all major book sellers
(I got mine from Amazon)

First, for those of you unfamiliar with Gabor Mate, he is a Canadian (now retired) doctor who spent his career in family practice, palliative care, and working with people who use substances in Vancouver’s East End. And he’s touted as being an expert in these areas. The book, When the Body Says no is about how “stress” influences chronic illness. Now, stress encompasses a lot of things here, which is why I put it in quotations. It includes life stress, attachment, coping styles, trauma, adverse early childhood experiences, adult relationships, and so on. Basically a lot of stuff, though Dr. Mate posits that it’s our early life stresses that have the greatest impact on us. The book takes a biopsychosocial approach. This means it includes biological, psychological and sociocultural influences on health and illness. This is the approach that science is backing when it comes to both physical health and mental health (literally my first class in grad school was “A Biopsychosocial Approach to Mental Health”). What’s interesting, if you go online to research most illnesses (come on, we’ve all googled our actual illnesses, as well as other potential ones) usually only biological causes are listed. And I will agree with Dr. Mate, that biological causes don’t tell the whole story (and neither to strictly psychological or sociocultural). For example, he writes (based on scientific research) that some people with biological markers for illnesses never actually develop one. Why? If it was strictly biological then everyone with the biological markers would clearly develop it. Again, there is more to the picture.

Like I said, I agree with a lot of the content in the book. I mean, many autoimmune diseases are diagnosed after a person has gone through a stressful experiences. It makes sense that the body would take on what our minds don’t want to – such as a repression of emotions. And clearly trauma can manifest in many, many ways (illness, substance use, psychiatric disorders, etc.). Many people will read the book and find themselves very well represented for whatever illness they have (and he covers a lot of illnesses from cancer to a variety of autoimmune diseases to Alzheimers and so on). My only problem with it is that he asserts that attachment issues (to parents) are the #1 determinant of illness, and that virtually all people with illnesses have more than one of these issues. And this is where I didn’t find myself represented. My attachment style with my parents has always been healthy. My early childhood experiences were really good. In fact, the first trauma I suffered was ongoing between the ages of 8-13 (being bullied at school). At the time, yes, I did probably repress a lot of my emotions, but as I got older, and certainly by the time I was diagnosed with my illnesses, and I was not repressing emotion (at least as often) anymore. Now, that being said, maybe all it took was that experience to account for the psychosocial part of my illness. I can’t say either way, but regardless I don’t feel I perfectly represent the picture Dr. Mate paints in his book, though I can appreciate that a lot of people do.

My brother and I, circa 1988-89.

All of that said, I do highly recommend reading this book if you have a chronic illness OR if you have a loved one with a chronic illness. It gives insight into the causes, which some people find helpful. And if you’d rather live in the here-and-now, rather than try to decipher what caused your illness, the last chapter is called the “Seven A’s of Healing” and it really resonated with me, because for the most part, it is exactly what I work on with clients, and it is strongly evidence-based. So, go read When the Body Says No, it’s definitely worth it.

My podcast episode this week is on Creative Hopelessness, so if you’re finding it difficult to make changes in your life and/or you’ve been feeling hopeless, please check it out. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

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Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning

This month I read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book is actually one of the top selling “self-help” books of all time. I put self-help in quotations because I’m not sure if that was the original intention behind Frankl writing it, but it seems that he might have recognized what it became between the years it was first published in 1946 and his death in the late 1990s. The first half of the book chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in concentration camps during the second World War, including Auschwitz. While this could be just read as an intense, heart-breaking story (and it is), the way that Frankl writes about his life experiences doesn’t come off that way. Instead, you can see his reflection and growth in his writing. It’s kind of hard to explain how that works, unless you read it for yourself. The story is also not chronological but instead jumps back and forth across his timeline in the camps to highlight pieces of the story that are connected to each other in some way.

While I don’t want to give away too much from the story, because I highly recommend that everyone read it, there were two main takeaways that I had from the first half of the book. First, is that if we believe our lives have no meaning, then we are more likely to give up when faced with difficult circumstances – and that meaning doesn’t have to be grand or anything, as the beauty of a sunset or holding the hand of a sick friend can bring some meaning for that day. Of course, as Frankl admits, in the concentration camps there was a huge element of dumb luck that you ended up in this line instead of that line (whereas that line led you to the gas chambers and this one didn’t), but for those with that luck, meaning became important. The other takeaway I had is that meaning is created by each other us, and is different for each person. It is solely up to us what that meaning is.

The second half of the book is about Logotherapy, which is a psychotherapy modality that Frankl (who was a psychiatrist) invented. It was kind of based on psychoanalysis, but with a heavy emphasis on existential philosophy, particularly meaning-making. During the second half of the book, Frankl does tell more stories from his time in the camps, integrating it with his theories about human existence and how helping people find meaning can aid with the treatment of many mental health problems. Frankl is considered one of the leaders of existential psychotherapy. Though logotherapy isn’t really used anymore, as there isn’t a huge amount of empirical evidence supporting it, it has influenced many other existentially-based therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I practice. My personal beliefs are that life meaning is incredibly important, as are other existential concepts, which all humans ultimately deal with, and our ability to deal with contributes, at least partially, to our overall well-being.

Even if you aren’t interested in psychotherapy or existentialism, I highly recommend giving this book a read. There’s a reason that this is a best-selling self-help book. Many people struggle with finding meaning in their lives, especially at transitional periods, and this book can really open your eyes on how to find meaning, even in incredibly difficult circumstances. There are so many amazing quotes from this book, but I’m going to leave you with this one: “The helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself – he may turn personal tragedy into a triumph.”

For a podcast episode on meaning making with chronic illness, check out this one. Everyone, thank you as always for reading my posts. If you end up reading this book, let me know what your takeaways were. For now, keep making the most of it!