Courtesy national geographic

HERE’S ONE WAY to avoid anxiety over the possibility of missing “Stress: Portrait of a Killer” (Wed., 8 p.m. on WETA): Watch it with the producers and Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky tonight at National Geographic Live! (7:30 p.m., 1600 M St. NW, Nglive.org). The special uses Sapolsky’s work with baboons to show how the lowest-ranking individuals in society face the most stress — and its bevy of accompanying health woes.

» EXPRESS: Why study stress?
» SAPOLSKY: I think there are a lot of scientists interested in one disease, like Alzheimer’s or colon cancer. I like that stress doesn’t really cause diseases, but it leads to many.

» EXPRESS:What are all of the horrible things stress can do?
» SAPOLSKY: It affects depression, memory, sleep, mood. Most people value their sex lives. Immune suppression is much more vulnerable. Strokes aren’t so much fun, either. It can raise your blood pressure, and there’s gastrointestinal stuff.

» EXPRESS: What is stress exactly?
» SAPOLSKY: If you’re a regular, boring animal, it’s a response to an acute physical crisis — not wanting to be eaten. It’s not until you get to smart species like us that you get the exact same changes in the body for psychological reasons.

» EXPRESS: Why have we developed this way?
» SAPOLSKY: Part of it is that primates have been smart socially for 30 million years, but stress has been around for hundreds of millions of years. I’m willing to bet that dinosaurs had a similar stress response. So, we’ve only developed this recently, and we don’t yet have anything in our bodies that says, “Don’t react this way.” When you’re stressed, you secrete hormones, and their job is to get energy from your liver and everywhere else to your thighs so you can run across the savannah. But does it make sense to have that reaction on a date?

» EXPRESS: What amazes me is that stress really damages your DNA.
» SAPOLSKY: It’s one of the flashiest findings, because forget that you get flatulent or your sex life is bad; your genes are getting battered. Someone says something mean to you and your DNA changes. People never guessed it would get down to that level.

» EXPRESS: So, why do you study baboons to figure this stuff out?
» SAPOLSKY: They’re just like us. They have a luxurious lifestyle for beasts in the wild. They only work three hours a day to get the calories they need. That means they can devote the rest of their time to hounding each other. You’ll see a high-ranking female force a low-ranking female to move and then hassle her again and again. This is queen-bee-girls-in-middle-school behavior.

» EXPRESS: Is it really all about social standing, though? There has to be more to it.
» SAPOLSKY: Well, can you tell when something is threatening behavior? If every time a rival is napping nearby and you get crazy and provoked, you’ll be more stressed. So, personality can filter how you respond to the reality of the world. Sometimes in a group of 20 baboons, the one who’s No. 19 feels pretty good that there’s someone beneath him. But if you’re No. 2, and you really want to be No. 1, then you could be in worse shape than 19.

» EXPRESS: So, if you’re stressed and you see this show, won’t you just become more stressed?
» SAPOLSKY: It’s like how every first-year medical student has 47 diseases at any given time. But, yes, it can be a real problem. You get people going through in vitro and having trouble, and then the doctor says, “Stress can mess up fertility, so try not to be stressed.” Yeah, right.

» EXPRESS: How do you deal with stress?
» SAPOLSKY: I’m terrible at that part. It’s not for nothing I study this. But for moderate stressors, it’s good to get a sense of control over it. Social support helps, too. We also have an enormous ability to kvetch to everybody around us.

Photo courtesy National Geographic