Are We Stressed Because We’re Aging? Or Aging Because We’re Stressed?
Even just a couple decades ago, talking to a therapist was something you kept under wraps, as it made it seem like you had mental problems and were incapable of dealing with life. Now? You’re unevolved without one.
A couple decades ago, yoga was seen as woo woo, but now it’s looked as a vital part of your routine – both for its physical and psychological benefits.
Meditation used to be reserved for monks in remote parts of Nepal. Now you can find meditation pods at work and offices.
The global stress management treatments market should increase to $20.6 billion by 2024 from $17.2 billion in 2019.
With the visible increase in the stress management industry year over year, there’s a clear increase in the emphasis placed on stress management.
Why is that? We all understand stress is bad, but how bad is it really? Can it kill you?
Turns out, it can.
In a study conducted at Yale, researchers discovered that chronic stress can accelerate one’s biological clock, shortening a person’s life. In fact, it can shave up to three years off a person’s life expectancy. (The study also gives us some good news – that we can minimize the adverse effects of stress by strengthening emotional regulation and self-control.)
What is Stress?
Stress is such a major part of our lives today, but in many ways it’s an elusive thing because it’s invisible and hard to measure. It’s hard to accurately gauge sometimes, because we can often describe our fickle feelings with the term, “I’m stressed.”
So what is stress?
Simply put, stress is our physiological response to pressure. It can occur because of a variety of stress factors, many of those being very individualized and dependent on our life circumstances, upbringing, genetics, and more.
Stress isn’t an emotion (although oftentimes it can be triggered by or in conjunction with emotions) – it’s a biological process. Experiencing stress causes an increase in stress-related hormones in our bodies. When we perceive a stressful situation, our brain sends a message to the pituitary gland, which then sends a message to the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands, located on top of our kidneys, are responsible for releasing three stress-related hormones: adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.
Adrenaline and norepinephrine are immediately released in what you would know as fight-or-flight situations, whereas it takes cortisol longer to kick in. Cortisol is released after the stressful situation to keep you alert for anything else you need to respond to.
Is All Stress Bad?
The stress response is a normal part of our biological functioning and is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there is a good type of stress called eustress, which is the stress that kicks us into positive action but doesn’t necessarily create excessive distress. Additionally, a low level amount of cellular stress can actually reverse cellular aging and reset one’s lifespan.
When it comes to distress (the opposite of eustress), there are two types of stress:
- Acute stress (also known as episodic stress)
- Chronic stress (also known as toxic stress)
Although the stress response is a natural part of our bodies and lives, chronic stress is what the real killer is. When you are stressed over a long period of time and when the body doesn’t have a chance to complete the stress response cycle, cortisol levels remain elevated. When this happens, an assortment of physical and mental issues can occur.
How Stress Affects Longevity
Here are a few ways stress impacts longevity:
- Physiological: When consistently elevated, cortisol can lead to wear and tear on the body’s systems, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, immune system dysregulation, premature aging, brain shrinkage, decreased ability to beat cancer, and more.
- Inflammation: Chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation within the body. Similar to stress, inflammation isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but chronic inflammation is. It’s linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Immune System: Stress can suppress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases.
- Lifestyle: The secondary effects of chronic stress are the unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms people adopt to combat feelings of stress: overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.
- Mental Health: Long-term stress can often lead to anxiety and depression. Serious mental illnesses can reduce life expectancy by decades.
- Telomere Shortening: Telomeres are stretches of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect our genetic data. As cells divide, telomeres get shorter and shorter until they eventually die. Chronic stress and the constant exposure to stress-related hormones can accelerate telomere shortening, which is related to cancer and other age-related diseases.
- Social Support: Chronic stress can lead to isolation, and conversely, isolation can lead to chronic stress. Social isolation can increase a person’s risk of premature death from age-related diseases, a risk that is greater than that from smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Ways to Manage Stress
If it wasn’t already obvious… Stress is awful for your body. There are two parts to the physiological stress we experience: the stressor itself and the way we respond to it.
Now, the point isn’t to tell you that if you’re not handling stress well, you’re the problem – the last thing we need is for you to be stressed about stress. We’re pointing out that you have two things to deal with: managing the stress itself, resolving the source of stress, or both.
As an example, if you’re in an unhealthy work environment, it’s going to be more effective for you to confront the stressor itself by taking some type of positive action to alleviate the stressor instead of simply managing the resulting stress. Fix the problem, not just the symptoms.
That being said, when it comes to stress management, it’s important to remember that the completion of the stress response cycle is necessary to prevent stress from turning into chronic stress.
When stress hits, it’s not simply about managing it – it’s about completing it. How can you complete the stress response cycle? Here are five ways:
- Rest: Resting or sleeping allows us to bring a stressful period to a close and recover properly from it. For tips to improve your sleep, check out our guide on better sleep.
- Physical Affection: Touch can calm us down and positively affect the way we manage stress, as it reduces the release of cortisol and also increases the production of oxytocin in our bodies.
- Physical Activity: Physical activity helps to reduce stress and complete the stress cycle, as it reduces the body’s release of adrenaline and cortisol. It also increases the production of endorphins, which help to lower pain and improve mood.
- Emotional Release: Releasing our emotions can help us mitigate the fight-or-flight response that happens during times of chronic stress. Some examples would be: journaling, therapy, laughing, crying, and other forms of creative expression.
- Deep Breathing: The way you breathe can both activate and deactivate the fight-or-flight response you experience. Short and shallow breaths activate the sympathetic nervous system, but conversely, deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help complete the stress cycle by calming you down and returning you back to a parasympathetic state.
Learning how to complete the stress response cycle is a key part of maximizing not just your physical and mental health but your longevity as well. Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes a balanced diet and regular exercise, can help you be resilient to stress.
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