Why Zebras Don’t Have Insomnia


If you’re unable to unwind without help, if you’re overwhelmed or unable to focus, I invite you to think about Dr. Robert Sapolsky and zebras.

Sapolsky is renowned for his findings on stress and the autonomic nervous system, which he explains in his bestselling book. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

In short, zebras are always in danger of being eaten, regularly under predator attack. Yet even after narrowly escaping the hungry lion, a few minutes later, they’re calmly grazing, as though it never happened.

Humans, on the other hand, don’t let things go so easily. Your neighbor snaps at you for driving too fast, and the triggered response you feel lasts all afternoon, as you replay all the ways you should have responded. You’re still agitated as you’re lying in bed, thinking about what a jerk that guy is, you weren’t even speeding.

Is this because zebras have limited mental capacity to review where they went wrong when the lion attacked? Maybe they should have stayed in the middle of the pack, or hidden in the bushes. Maybe, but the reality is, zebras are never safe from predators unless they’re in a zoo behind bars.

And we’re never safe from criticism from ourselves or others. But that doesn’t mean we need to keep reliving it long after the event has passed.

So why can zebras put it down and go about their business, happily chewing their grass while we’re up all night ruminating?

The answer has to do with our biology. Specifically, the role of the autonomic nervous system. When our “fight, flight, freeze” system is triggered by a stressful event, the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of our brain shuts down. Which is why we can’t think our way out of a stress response.

And in fact, if we keep ruminating or worrying about it, we’re actively keeping that trigger alive. Fortunately, there is a back doorway into this network. The brain isn’t the only generator of thoughts in the human system. We also have the benefit of what’s known as “embodied cognition” at our disposal.

It’s been 10 years since I heard Dr. Sapolsky present in person, and it took me almost that long to understand how to apply the information to my life.

Our nervous system is designed to prioritize survival, as in safety and connection, above everything else. Which was helpful in the days when we needed to stay on high alert for danger and retain strong working memory of threatening people, places, and things in order to survive.

Yet these days, the danger we face isn’t typically life-threatening. Change and uncertainty keep our stress response systems on high alert, as do negative social interactions, unfair treatment, and lack of recognition. Unfortunately, this is everyday life for most of us. But it doesn’t have to keep us living in full-time stress mode.

Our go-to reactions are the result of deeply ingrained thought patterns, firing off automatically before we have the chance to intercept them. Yet this doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to change them. And until you get to know the ways your default safety mode stands between you and your path to growth, you can’t experience deep and lasting change.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, author of Yes to Life.

I recently spent an amazing few days at the uber-peaceful Mount Madonna retreat center in Northern California. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a 20-something guy who had traveled around the world; Peru, India, the Himalayas, and across the US over the past few years, doing work-trade at a variety of retreat centers, which included a 17-day silent meditation retreat.

I asked him his biggest takeaway from the experience. He responded, learning to stop and pause, to think before speaking or reacting. Clearly, this is not an easy task. It’s also the point of contemplative practice, whether it’s mindfulness, meditation or breathwork. And it’s been my big takeaway from committing to a daily breathwork practice.

Because here’s the thing; knowing what we should do, or even what we want to do, has no effect on what we’ll do in the moment when our fight, flight, freeze brain is in charge. That system is the first responder, designed there to automatically react before we’ve had the chance to think it through.

Yet by using the means at our disposal to intercept the fight, flight network through breathwork, the autonomic (automatic) response we have control over, we’re able to shift out of autopilot and into the response we choose to have.

Whether that’s calmly telling your neighbor you have no interest in feuding, or simply shifting out of your stress state to let it go after the event has passed, I guarantee you’ll sleep a lot more soundly.

This is an invitation to get to know your autonomic system (ANS), and how to use breathwork to both gain greater awareness of your response habits, and to intercept a stress or rumination response using the simple tool at your disposal; your breath. Nothing woo about this, and no 17-day trip to the Himalayas required.

I hope you’ll join me on Tuesday for my next free presentation on this topic either live at the Lake Oswego Public Library or via Zoom, or check out a free video series.

Until next time, may the breath be with you!

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