The Secret to Stress-Free Living
Chances are good that you’re reading this at a computer. But take a moment to check in. The real question is, what ELSE are you doing? Most of us try to multitask our way through every moment. So perhaps you’ve got several windows open on your computer, the news on in the background, you’re talking on your home phone and texting on your cell. And you’ve got to wrap it up soon, because it’s time to make dinner! Some might call it efficiency. But when we step back and look at it, our “Go! Go! Go!” approach to modern living can be incredibly stressful. And that stress isn’t just an emotional drag. It might just be a matter of life and death.
So what exactly is stress?
Stress is our body’s response to change. It can result from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous or even just confused. And while we might associate the idea of stress with the technological juggle described above, the truth is that dealing with stress is a tale as old as time. It’s genetically coded into our bodies, dating back to caveman days: When we had to fight for our lives, fight for our food, or take flight from stampeding wooly mammoths, it only makes sense that our bodies would adapt to deal with these situations as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
And what does that run look like? What exactly happens to our bodies when we kick into “fight or flight” mode?
It starts with the heart. As our heart rates increase, so do our blood pressure levels. Breathing accelerates, eyes dilate, and blood is shunted away from the stomach (sometimes to the point of halting digestion). The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are dumped into the bloodstream. Our bodies are responding to a perceived threat and preparing for violent muscular action.
If you’re running from a wooly mammoth, those responses might come in handy. But what happens when that wooly mammoth comes in the form of your boss, or an irritating email, or a high mortgage payment?
What’s at risk?
When we experience physical and mental stress, telomeres start to erode, which kills cells and leads to premature aging, while also damaging our immune systems.
In small doses, stress can be a good thing. Some of us work well under pressure, so in some cases, a little stress just puts a fire in our bellies, motivating us to succeed. But a little bit goes a long way. Because with stress – and, more importantly, our bodies’ response to stress – there’s a tipping point. And when we go past that point, what exactly are we risking?
- Our Brains: Chronic stress (the kind of stress that is constant, reoccurring, or happens over an extended period of time) is linked to neurodegeneration: the progressive loss or death of neurons. The USC School of Gerontology did a recent study on stress and its relationship to a gene called RCAN1. RCAN1 is designed to help our bodies cope with stress, but, as the USC study found, when stress becomes chronic, it can cause over-expression of RCAN1, which can lead to damaged neurons, which can lead to a host of diseases.
- Our Health: The risk of stress becoming chronic is a serious obstacle for many people. It may not come as a surprise that over 30% of Americans will deal with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Because when stressors (or sources of stress) are everywhere we look, our physiological responses to those stressors are always in gear. And high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can exacerbate severe health problems from heart disease to obesity.
- Our Weight: That surge of cortisol can have another unfortunate side effect: It can lead to weight gain. When cortisol floods our system, it’s meant to replace our fuel stores, and leaves us craving sweet, salty and fatty foods. And when we experience that cortisol rush repeatedly, it triggers out bodies to start storing fat. That’s a good thing if you just outran a wolf and have to live off the land for a while. But if you’re sitting at your desk, up against a deadline and trying to resist an afternoon craving, of course, that’s another story.
The truth about telomeres:
Telomeres are the bits of DNA found on the tips of our chromosomes. Their importance can’t be underestimated; in 2009, several scientists won the Nobel Prize for discovering the function of telomeres. When we experience physical and mental stress, telomeres start to erode, which kills cells and leads to premature aging, while also damaging our immune systems. And as it turns out, when it comes to telomeres and our health, the longer the better.
A recent study on the common cold, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that people with shorter telomeres were more likely to become ill. To a certain extent, our telomere size is pre-determined genetically. But lifestyle does have a major impact. Certain behaviors can influence whether we speed up our rate of telomere shrinkage, slow it down, or even reverse it:
- Smoking: I sincerely hope you didn’t need yet another reason to quit puffing, but just in case, here goes: Cigarettes erode your telomeres at a faster rate. And there are rumors that they have some other negative side effects, too. So it’s time to cut it out. NOW.
- Exercise: A few years ago, German scientists studied telomeres and their affect on the life span of cells. Some conclusions were seemingly obvious: In general, as we age, our telomeres shorten. But the study compared various subjects, including groups of middle-aged people – some sedentary and some active – and found that a group of aging runners’ telomeres were only 10% shorter than their youthful counterparts. For that group, decades of dedicated exercise slowed their telomeres loss by a whopping 75%. And it showed: In the New York Times, Dr. Christian Werner recalled that “middle-aged athletes looked much younger than sedentary control subjects of the same age.” Perhaps it’s a long shot, but I’m wondering if there are any middle-aged readers out there who are interested in looking much younger. If, by any chance, that’s you, it’s time to get moving.
- Meditation: Here’s another fascinating take on the science of telomeres. The University of California recently released a study on the effects of meditation. According to their results, the study is “the first to link positive well-being to higher telomerase.” Telomerase is an enzyme that lengthens telomeres and is key to the long-term health of our cells. With cooperation from the Samantha Project (the most comprehensive study on meditation to date), participants in the UC study who meditated regularly had 1/3 more telomerase activity than their non-meditating counterparts. Not to mention that meditation has been shown to decrease stress and improve our overall sense of well-being.
When our stress levels are through the roof, the last thing we want to do is add “EXERCISE” and “MEDITATE” to our ever-expanding To-Do lists. But, as we now know, those two activities might just have the power to shift our perceptions, alter our moods, eliminate stress, and even save our lives. So go ahead and take out that To-Do list, and write those two things in big bold letters, right at the top.