Stress is on the rise and can be caused by a number of circumstances. But, what does stress really do to your body and your brain? Stress is real – it is the body’s response to a perception that you have, be it real or imagined. We get stressed when we perceive a loss of control over an adverse situation or person. In other words, the stress you experience is always about how you deal with life.
If you allow yourself to experience life as highly stressful, your brain will adapt to that higher stress load. It’s called ‘allostasis’ which means adjusted stability. Your brain literally resets its own stress thermostat, so a higher stress load becomes the new norm. This new norm may manifest as depression, general anxiety disorder, PTSD, and chronic stress disorders.
So why is it important to reduce your stress?
Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes which help them to make new chromosomes when they become damaged. In this way, telomeres can offer insight into cell longevity. You are born with a set amount of telomeres. By the time you are 70, you will be running low on telemeres. The relevance of this is that telomeres are a strong indicator of aging.
Chronic stress is significantly associated with known determinants of aging, creating shorter, fewer telomeres in healthy premenopausal women. You should care about chronic stress as it is now shown to accelerate aging. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women. In fact, women under chronic stress age 9-17 years faster than their peers. This process also contributes to cognitive decline as well.
What else accelerates aging, based on the measure of telomere markers?
Have you felt a little crabby and grumpy lately? We know pessimism may accelerate the rate of telomere shortening and increase aging. In men, poorer health, erratic sleep behaviors, financial insecurity, and occupational status all influence chronic stress indicators. For men and women, social rejection events and negative self-referential cognitions contribute to the stress response and potential acceleration of aging.
Some of the other adverse effects of chronic stress include: worsened short term memory, weaker social skills, increased susceptibility to illness, an inability to concentrate, slower cognitive processing, and weaker decision-making.
What can you do about it?
There are many ways to reduce the effects of chronic stress. So far, science has measured two things that actually slow aging. Vigorous physical activity appears to protect those experiencing high stress by buffering its relationship with telomere shortening. Mild physical exercise (going for walks every day) does not appear to have the same beneficial effects as vigorous activity (30 minutes a day.)
The other intervention is to improve your mental outlook. Being optimistic, increasing positive states of mind and being happier about your life’s situation seems to help. Intensive meditation may have positive effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal.
It is also important to understand that working life is a marathon not a sprint, and that building time to relax and re-charge within a longer working period is more important than simply stopping earlier. That’s going to put a premium on flexible working, job share and sabbaticals –and the companies that get this first will have their pick of the global talent pool.