Stress: Portrait of a Killer

Over the last three decades, science has been advancing our understanding of stress – how it impacts our bodies and how our social standing can make us more or less susceptible. In Stress: Portrait of a Killer, scientific discoveries in the field and in the lab proves that stress is not a state of mind, but something measurable and dangerous.

In this revelatory film, discoveries occur in an extraordinary range of places, from baboon troops on the plains of East Africa to the office cubes of government bureaucrats in London to neuroscience labs at the nation’s leading research universities. Groundbreaking research reveals surprising facts about the impact of stress on our bodies: how it can shrink our brains, add fat to our bellies and even unravel our chromosomes. Understanding how stress works can help us figure out ways to combat it and mitigate negative impacts on our health.

The stress response: in the beginning it saved our lives, making us run from predators and enabling us to take down prey. Today, human beings are turning on the same life-saving physical reaction to cope with 30-year mortgages, $4 a gallon gasoline, final exams, difficult bosses and even traffic jams – we can’t seem to turn it off. So, we’re constantly marinating in corrosive hormones triggered by the stress response.

Now, scientists are showing just how measurable – and dangerous – prolonged exposure to stress can be. Stanford University neurobiologist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and renowned author Robert Sapolsky reveals new answers to why and how chronic stress is threatening our lives in Killer Stress, a National Geographic Special. The hour-long co-production of National Geographic Television and Stanford University was produced exclusively for public television.

Watch Stress: Portrait of a Killer full documentary online


  • Isabelle

    I don’t see evidence that stress leads to poor memory because most of the people that I know, who have anxiety disorders, have a very good memory. They live in the past and record every single little things said or done to them. I, on the other hand, have low stress and mostly live in the present. In fact, I don’t really care much about past events or things that have no meaning for me. I tend to forget much of what I am exposed to simply because of a filtering system. Not much I hear or see is that important, except what is going on in the present moment. Trauma survivors are in constant hyper arousal or hyper vigilant mode and they can pick up details that most of us are oblivious to. Their interpretation of events however is hardly ever a rational one. They are caught up in their immature ways of thinking and judging from the outside with no critical skills for the most part. This is just an observation but I do believe that stress causes a reduction in blood flow, especially in the pineal gland which has a direct link to the brain and CNS, among other things. Hormonal function is severely impeded when a person has a history of  anxiety, depression, addiction/toxicity and poor nutrition. I have watched Sapolsky’s lecture series on human behavior biology twice and I think he is a genius even if I don’t agree with everything he says.

  • Isabelle

    I propose that it makes more sense that people become fat, not because of stress per say, but because they use certain kinds of food to comfort themselves. Very often they eat junk food with lots of sugar, highly processed and high in fats. Once again, stress also affect all hormonal function (because system is hijacked by stress hormones) and surely, this includes insulin regulation. I have seen too many skinny highly stressed or chronically anxious people to believe this. This an epigenetics aspect maybe where the coping mechanisms to do with stress have to be factored in. The problem with humans is that they think too much (unlike baboons) and cannot be in the present moment, that is why people suffering from stress are being told to meditate, to exercise or to relax. These type of activities will have a direct effect on their DNA, especially on what will be transcribed hormonally.

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