When an organism is subjected to some physiological stress say, a pain stimulus, it develops a stress response. Two similar physiological stresses can be perceived and appraised differently depending on psychological factors i.e. they can be modulated by psychological variables. A corollary is that, in the absence of any physiological stress, psychological factors alone can cause a stress response. Being familiar with zebras, you are no doubt conversant with all this stuff. So let us proceed to rats.
Take a rat and subject it to a series of mild electric shocks. It has some stress response like an increased heart rate. Let us say the long term consequences of this is measured as some probability of developing ulcers later on. It is seen that this probability increases for the stressed rat. Take another rat and subject it to the same electric shocks of the same intensity and duration. But this time allow the rat to run across and gnaw a piece of wood after every electric shock. It is seen that this rat has a lower probability of developing ulcers. You have given it an outlet for frustration. Discussing this experiment, Robert Sapolsky writes in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:
We humans also deal better with stressors when we have outlets for frustrations - punch a wall, take a run, find solace in a hobby. We are even cerebral enough to imagine those outlets and derive some relief: consider the prisoner of war who spends hours imagining a golf game in tremendous detail. I have a friend who passed a prolonged and very stressful illness lying in bed with a mechanical pencil and a notepad, drawing topographic maps of imaginary mountain images and taking hikes through them.A central feature of an outlet being effective is if it distracts from the stressor. But, obviously, more important is that it also be something positive for you - a reminder that there is more to life than whatever is making you crazed and stressed at the time.
The interest I developed in reading about and trying to understand evolution and to some extent astronomy were my outlets for frustration. (I read more about evolution not because I like astronomy less but because I like evolution more. Both are huge subjects and I have only so much time to read so I have to make a choice.) I loved grappling with concepts that I didn't know anything about. “Not to be occupied, and not to exist, amount to the same thing,” said Voltaire. I tried to keep myself occupied during long sleepless hours thinking about stuff that I was previously unfamiliar with. So when I was not doing anything, I was not really not doing anything. This blog also acts as an outlet for frustration. of course the mother of all outlets was the establishment of a means of communication.
There is an interesting variant of the above rat experiment. This time after each electric shock, let it run across the cage and hassle another rat. Such stress induced displacement of aggression reduces the probability of it developing ulcers. Sapolsky writes:
It’s a real primate specialty as well. A male baboon loses a fight. Frustrated, he spins around and attacks a subordinate male who was minding his own business. An extremely high percentage of primate aggression represents frustration displaced onto innocent bystanders. Humans are pretty good at it, too, and we have a technical way of describing the phenomenon in the context of stress-related disease: “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t get ulcers, he gives them.” Taking it out on someone else- how well it works at minimizing the impact of a stressor.
P.S.: I saw recently that Stanford has just posted Robert Sapolsky's entire Human Behavioral Biology course from Spring 2010 on YouTube! I don't know about you but I am going to
freak out on this.