Lab Rats and the Rat Race

I’ve been with my current employer for eight years. In those eight years, I’ve served under six different managers. I’ve liked several, feared a few, but respected only one.

At this moment, in the midst of unwarranted upheaval in my current location, I find it difficult to respect any of my superiors. After years of “musical managers” the stress of being expected to perform exceptionally well in an unpredictable environment is becoming too much for me to handle. Not knowing who my boss is going to be tomorrow or next week and not knowing what is about to happen is simply unnerving. The panic attacks I thought I had conquered have returned with a vengeance, even on days when I do not work. In an economy where countless families are struggling to survive, it is drilled into those that have jobs that we should be grateful, grateful, GRATEFUL for our jobs. This makes a difficult situation at work that much harder – the chances of finding another job are slim. Therefore, you’re trapped. You need the job and the health insurance, but the stress is unbearable. At this point, you become a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations. Why am I saying you? I mean me. Myself. I am a ticking time bomb of emotional frustrations.

This situation reminds me of a classic laboratory experiment with rats. The scientist takes two normal, healthy rats and places each in a separate cage. The first rat’s cage has two levers in it. One lever produces food, the other, an electric shock. The rat quickly learns which lever is which and avoids the shock-producing lever, while using the lever that produces food. In this predictable environment where he feels he has some control, he is happy, normal, and healthy. He socializes normally with other rats. He is emotionally well-adjusted.

The second rat’s cage also has two levers. But instead of each lever consistently producing the same outcome, they vary. This lever sometimes produces food, sometimes a nasty shock. And vice versa. In this completely unpredictable environment, the rat has no sense of control over what happens to him. He becomes a nervous wreck, exhibiting hostile or withdrawn behavior, overeating or not eating at all, becoming ill and even engaging in autistic rocking behaviors.

Scientists say this model can be applied to humans living in any unpredictable environment – from living in a war zone to having an alcoholic family member… Or a job where the management is constantly changing and what’s right today may get you yelled at tomorrow – not to mention dealing with customers who blame the person behind the counter for everything from the color of the carpet to their own epic blunders. In unpredictable environments, people get stressed. They feel anxious. They feel depressed. I feel stressed/anxious/depressed.

I find it particularly interesting about the aforementioned experiment that the physical health of the rats was affected by their environment and emotional state. Rat #1, who has a measure of control over his surroundings, is happy AND healthy. Rat #2, who has no idea if he’s getting zapped or fed today, easily gets ill, in addition to becoming a blubbering neurotic.

“Study after study shows that the more in control people feel, the less stress they feel and fewer negative sensations they experience.” – Dr. Richard Fried, PhD

Obviously, when one feels a lack of control and is stressed, the first thing to do is try to regain a sense of control in other areas of life. Some suggestions:

• Exercise. Regular physical activity is essential to work off stress hormones.

• Stress reduction techniques. Progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, journal therapy and the like can be helpful.

• Get professional help. Seeing a therapist or counselor to learn coping techniques.

I’ve tried all of the above. I walk vigorously for at least 30 minutes a day. I try to use deep breathing, especially when in the throes of a panic attack. I see a therapist on a regular basis. But these strategies take time to work. Not to mention, if a new difficulty arises while you’re still working on coping with the last one, you’re in trouble. And if you’re like me, having to be drugged to deal with work is out of the question. It just sounds completely outrageous and totally unfair.

Time does heal. Once away from work, it takes days to recover from the stress. But by then, it’s time to return to work. In a situation where people are treated as pawns in a corporate chess game, the stress of the rat race has a new dynamic – that unpredictable lever. Will it dispense a reward today? Or just another nasty shock?





Have you ever passed an area that you’ve always known to be wooded, only to find that the familiar landscape has been decimated since you were there last? That happened to me recently. The sight affected me like a punch in the stomach – it hurt.


I’ve seen this situation countless times in my lifetime here in my home state of New Jersey. Places that were once filled with natural beauty – however commonplace it may have seemed – are now developments full of “McMansions” or strip malls, with ostentatious landscaping but no real trees in sight. Other sites are nothing more than a pile of dirt, in anticipation of new construction. It sickens me to see expensive new homes sitting unoccupied on bare land that once was home to wildlife and the oxygen-producing trees essential to life. I see the animals that once inhabited the woodland areas now displaced, often killed by cars on the road as they migrate in search of a new home. This presents a hazard not only to the animals but to the humans who are driving and experience a collision with an animal that can weigh up to 300 pounds. The result is decaying carrion on the road, presenting a sickening sight and smell.


Then there is noise pollution as construction crews tear down the natural sound dampeners – trees – and begin to build, filling the air with the sounds of construction, now even louder without surrounding trees to dampen some of the noise. The noise pollution is compounded as city dwellers, accustomed to the constant hustle and bustle of the city, move into the new homes and carry on their “city that never sleeps” existence, to the distress of the locals, who actually (try to) sleep at night!


There is more litter on the roads, beaches and grass because people do not take pride in their hometown anymore. Visitors and those that have moved from areas where litter is a constant feature of the landscape carelessly add to the problem as they toss coffee cups, fast food wrappers, cigarette butts and who knows what else out of the window of a moving car. (I’ve seen it firsthand: A vehicle with out of state license plates, window rolled down, litter tossed out heedlessly.) This is not to say that the locals are blameless in this, but most often it is the out-of-towners that are guilty of marring the natural landscape with litter.


Sadly, these conditions are not confined to New Jersey, U.S.A. Worldwide, 29,800,000 trees are cut down every day. The Earth’s total forest area continues to decrease at about 35,714 hectares daily: that’s one acre per second. The actual figures may be even higher, because these figures may not include illegal logging.

Then there is the Amazon rainforest, often described as the “Lungs of our Planet” because it provides more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. The rainforest gives us not only essential oxygen, but also food. At least 80% of the developed world’s diet originated in the tropical rainforest. Many familiar foods such as coconuts, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, pineapples, mangos, winter squash and yams, coffee, nuts, spices such as black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, turmeric, and vanilla grow in the rainforest. Despite these gifts, essential to life, that are produced by the rainforest, one and one-half acres of rainforest are decimated every second with tragic consequences for the entire world. Nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms are being destroyed or severely threatened – just as countless species in the rainforest are being discovered and their importance begins to be appreciated by scientists, they are obliterated by short-sighted, greedy deforestation.


Some experts project that in just forty years, the Earth will no longer be able to support life. When you think on the aforementioned facts about deforestation and add to that global warming and rampant pollution of air, earth and water, it’s not difficult to understand that we humans are killing the Earth – and ourselves. While our amazing planet has remarkable regenerative abilities, the human population – 7 billion and growing – is destroying a once perfect home. Conservation efforts, while commendable, are tragically too little too late. There are not enough people who care enough to effect real change in this situation. Each person can make a difference, but at this stage of environmental deterioration, each person needs to make a difference. But is each person willing to?

What do you think? Are we doomed?