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Cartoon Villains, Stress, and Health: Kim and The Donald

Trump and Kim Jong-Un's bellicosity raises global stress, and harms our health.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un: They seem for all the world like a pair of cartoon villains from the superhero comics, even down to the memorable coifs that make their silhouettes instantly recognizable. But sadly there is no superhero waiting in the wings to swoop in and save the day from Kim and The Donald. We can only hope that more sober minds will prevail, as many experts assure us is the case, and the war of words will not escalate to real war-making from either side.

In the meantime, though, real physical harm is being done, spurred by the heightened fear and uncertainty that leads to sharply elevated stress responses—not only in the two countries whose leaders can’t resist constantly goading each other, but also in bystanders who stand to suffer the most, especially in South Korea and Japan. And for some of the most vulnerable everywhere—young infants and fetuses still growing in the womb—the consequences may well last a lifetime, leading to behavioral and health problems that will endure.

How? The health and behavioral effects of super-stress come from two sources that often travel together: high and hard-to-control exposure to external stressors; and heightened, dysregulated responses to stress, an internal vulnerability that many suffer from. Our stress system, working through our HPA-axis (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal), is designed to produce cortisol, a hormone that is a key part of the body’s fight-or-flight response. This is an essential tool in our survival kit, enabling us to deal with threats, both physical and social, by activating a suite of emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that we can use to counter the threat. In beneficial circumstances, we get the HPA “kick,” deal with the danger, and our system returns to baseline. But if either high exposure or elevated vulnerability, or both, are present, then a hyper-cortisol response that does not return easily to a baseline or resting state can cause many problems. (An in-depth treatment of the stress cycle throughout a lifetime can be found in my new book, Born Anxious.)

We are already experiencing a stress epidemic in the United States that has been building for several decades: stress-related disorders and diseases are increasing; we report feeling more distressed and overwhelmed, and the physiological precursors of stress-induced health problems are also increasing. Against this background of ever higher stress exposure, adding an extra scary dose of fear and worry about the possibility of nuclear war just serves to accelerate the stress cycle.

At the same time, the overall stress vulnerability in the population is likely increasing along the same pathway. If an expectant mother is stressed enough that her excess cortisol finds its way into the womb at a level the fetus detects, the message is clear: It’s a dangerous world out there, so get ready. An epigenetic change can occur that alters how a key stress gene works, so that instead of down-regulating the stress response so it returns to a resting state, the system stays active and keeps on pumping. The same thing can happen, especially in the first year of life, if warm, responsive parenting is not available to an infant for any reason, including parents being so stressed that they are not available to provide this essential nurturing. The signal is the same: It’s a dangerous world, so keep that stress system on high alert. 

After this early-life stress, we don’t know how to fundamentally shift the basic physiology, although we do know a fair bit about factors that foster resilience, which can mitigate or work around a dysregulated stress system: social connections; conscious mindfulness and meaning; and physical measures like exercise, good sleep, healthy eating, and avoiding the dangers of comfort food or psychoactive substances.

The ongoing fear and uncertainty from this bizarre battle between Kim and The Donald presents a particular challenge, though. For one, we have very little control over the direction it may take: each of them possesses the sole authority to launch Armageddon, regardless of what their populations think. Or what the rest of the world thinks, for that matter. It’s also unsettling that they both seem unhinged and mercurial, magnifying the uncertainty. So the mechanism known as “problem-focused coping” does not seem a reliable option.

There are, though, more “emotion-focused” coping strategies that can help, and they coincide with the resilience factors noted above. Drawing strength from our social connections, even when they may focus on shared concerns rather than solutions, can mitigate our stress response: even biologically, through the release of the “social hormones” serotonin and oxytocin, which counteract cortisol. Developing the ability to remain mindfully in the present reduces our fear of the future, including realistic fears that are beyond our control. We can also join with others to present a united front against warmongering, combining the benefits of social connection and meaning-making, even if the odds of immediate success are low. And taking good care of our own physical health (exercise, diet, and sleep) also helps to regulate excess cortisol, which presents the major risk to long-term health. 

And laughter. We can agree that the real risks are grim, but at the same time see the contest between Kim and The Donald as a very bad episode of Batman or Spiderman. Seeing its comic side may even help us to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, which is another proven method for decreasing our over-taxed stress response systems.