What can snakes teach us about stress management?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jul 7, 2023

Woman holding snake

These cold-blooded reptiles might not be your first port-of-call for wellbeing lessons, but new research into their behaviour has uncovered a relatable lesson on stress management

If you were going to look to the animal kingdom for lessons on stress management, you may instinctively think of sleepy sloths and their laid-back (often, literally) approach to life. Or perhaps happy-go-lucky dogs – or even equal parenting pioneers, seahorses.

But a new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ethology, is prompting us to look again at an unlikely candidate: snakes.

Looking at Southern Pacific rattlesnakes, common in Southern California, researchers found that snakes who went through stressful situations with a companion by their side, displayed a lower heart rate than snakes who went through the same experience alone.

This phenomenon is called ‘social buffering’, and describes the way that having a social partner can rescue the cortisol or corticosterone response to stress. The same effect is seen in humans, paired birds, primates, and rodents, but this is the first time that it has been found in reptiles.

The study was designed by lead study author Chelsea Martin, a doctoral student at Loma Linda University in California, and Dr William Hayes, an Earth and biological sciences professor at Loma Linda. The idea to investigate the snake’s behaviour came about in a natural way. The research team removes rattlesnakes for people who do not want them near their homes, and Dr Hayes began to notice that, when he had two snakes in a bucket together, they seemed to rattle less or not at all – compared to when he had just one snake in a bucket on its own.

A colleague suggested that this behaviour might have something to do with social buffering, and so the team designed an experiment that used 25 Southern Pacific rattlesnakes captured from the wild.

What they then did was essentially replicate the journey the rescued snakes had been on, placing the snakes in 19-litre sealed plastic buckets to create a stressful environment. Using heart rate monitors to track the snake’s stress levels, they observed the snakes in three scenarios: alone, with a companion, and with a rope the same size as a snake.

The result found that the snakes’ heart rates were significantly lower when they were in the bucket with a companion, compared to being alone or with the rope. The results open the door to further study into the social lives of reptiles, and may also be a prompt for those who keep snakes as pets to consider cagemates.

But back to humans – what can we take from this insight into snakes? As mentioned, social buffering is an effect that has also been seen in humans, and it’s probably something that we have experienced in our lives without really ever stopping to notice it. But there lies the key.

Social buffering is a scientifically supported way to reduce our stress levels when faced with challenging situations. So why not get deliberate about it?

Whether it be having a difficult conversation with a friend by your side, taking a loved one with you to an appointment that is causing you anxiety, or simply just making time to grab a coffee and have a catch up when you’re going through stress – leaning into the wellbeing benefits of our social connections is an effective tool to use when things get tough.

Why not also try:

Taking your wellbeing prompts from snakes probably wasn’t on your to-do list for today, but perhaps it should be now. At the end of the day, the research reminds us of the ways that our social lives impact us on a biological level. So, whether you’re taking a trip in a 19l plastic bucket, or preparing for a job interview – the next time you face a stressful situation, consider taking a friend along for the ride.

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