"Chronic, uncontrollable stress changes animals, making them different than normal." --Dr. Jooseph GarnerA famous television skit shows Lucille Ball wrapping chocolates on an assembly line.
As the pace of the belt speeds up, Lucy melts down. The resultant chaos is a hilarious. It is also a metaphor for the pain of being tethered to a job over which one has no control. Because stress from events beyond our control is the most challenging stress of all.
Dr. Joe Garner (who himself garnered much attention recently by postulating a possible correlation between diet and mental illness in mice) undertook a 2008 study of nest building in mice. Laboratory mice lead stressful lives with little control over their environment. This has consequences for the validity of animal research results, as stressed subjects respond differently than non-stressed ones.
Mice cages are kept at 70 degrees. Garner gave mice access to pools of varying temperatures, letting them 'vote with their feet' as to which temperature they preferred. (86 degrees.)
|Nest building relieves stress in mice Joseph Garner Brianna Gaskill (photo/Tom Campbell)|
Next Garner gave mice the ability to control their own temperatures through nest building (a mechanism used by mice in the wild to stay warm). Though raised in captivity, given raw materials, these mice built intricate nests similar to those of their wild brethren. Garner speculated that "nest building is both a form of stress relief and a way to enrich the quality of life for mice.." The nets enabled mice to alleviate their own stress by hiding from light and humans.
Garner's results will render mice more effective test subjects, ultimately improving research results for humans. (Clearly Garner also cares about the quality of life of laboratory animals.) But there are immediate lessons for us non-mice in these findings.
"The perception of its ability to control stress has a bigger impact on the animal than does the stress itself," Garner found. Yes. stress is an inevitable part of everyday life. But to the extent we can eliminate or gain control over significant sources of stress, we can improve our physical and mental health. Making peace with those elements we cannot control will help too, whether through mindfulness, yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Even if we can't slow down the assembly line, we can build ourselves a nice mental refuge. Our very own nest.
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