Business of Well-being

Reduce Aging & Improve Health by Managing Your Stress

Aging and Stress

The foremost researcher and authority on stress, Dr. Hans Selye, defined stress as "the rate of wear and tear on the body." Over 1,200 hormones are released into the bloodstream during the stress response, putting excessive demands on our body. It has been well documented that prolonged stress and its accompanying emotional strain compromises our immune system, which is responsible for fighting off disease.

The World Health Organization described stress as a worldwide epidemic, and a United Nations report called job stress the disease of the century. Annually, over $800 million is spent on "anti-anxiety pills." The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world's population and consumes 33% of the pills. Psychological stress not only makes us feel older, but now we have proof that it ages us on a cellular level.

Recently, scientists have identified a direct link between stress and aging. In a pioneering study, researchers have shown that chronic stress speeds up the shriveling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside the cells. This not only shortens the life span of the cells, but it also deteriorates them.

The telomeres are stretches of DNA on the outermost part of the chromosome that have been compared to the plastic tips on shoelaces. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell no longer can divide and becomes old, inactive, or dies. This process is associated with aging, cancer and a higher risk of death.

So telomeres also have been compared to a bomb fuse. With increasing age, telomeres naturally shorten. Excessive or prolonged stress increases inflammation, which accelerates the shortening. This has subsequently been linked to age-related diseases, unhealthy lifestyle and longevity. The main culprit in this process is an elevated level of stress hormones like cortisol.

Geneticist Dr. Richard Cawthon and colleagues at the University of Utah found shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lives. Among people older than 60, those with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease. Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) who helped conduct telomere research, stated, "This is the first time that psychological stress has been linked to a cellular indicator of aging in healthy people."

Towia Libermann, PhD, Director of the BIDMC Genomics Center and the report's co-senior author, adds, "This is the first comprehensive study of how the mind can affect gene expression, linking what has been looked on as a 'soft' science with the 'hard' science of genomics.

It is also important because of its focus on gene expression in healthy individuals, rather than in disease states." If these findings are confirmed, they could provide the first explanation on a cellular level for the well-documented association between psychological stress and increased risk of physical disease, as well as the common perception that unrelenting emotional pressure accelerates the aging process."

Symptoms from this stress-related, accelerated aging emerge in the form of skin wrinkles, weakened muscles, diminished hearing, eyesight and cognitive processes, and even organ failure. Herbert Benson, MD, is the director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and author of the Relaxation Response.

He believes that this research has found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented. It has also changed the old theory that some health problems are all in the mind. My own research showed that individuals who meditated often healed from psychosomatic diseases such as headaches, anxiety asthma and stomach problems.

Once they stopped meditating, their health problems reappeared. Most of the stress we deal with today is self-generated by our mind in the form of worry, anger, fear of the future, thoughts of negative experiences, relationship challenges, money problems, traffic and so on. By realizing that much of the time our thoughts create the stress response, we can increase this awareness and learn not to focus on and be controlled by stress-producing thoughts.

We can also make the time each day to relax, let go of stress, center ourselves, feel peaceful and create the balance we need to live healthy lives. Therefore, the more times an individual experiences the stress response and the more prolonged it becomes, the faster our body ages.

This recent study has demonstrated that there is no such thing as a separation of mind and body, as every molecule in our bodies is responsive to our psychological environment. Staying productive, healthy and mentally fit depends on how well we manage our stress. The following are attitude and behavior steps to reduce stress and aging.

Steps to master stress and reverse aging:

  1. Take at least 20 deep breaths a day to release stress.
  2. Take breaks, relax or meditate daily to calm your mind.
  3. Be proactive, not reactive, to stress-inducing situations.
  4. Practice being in the moment and become the observer of your thoughts.
  5. Receive and give love, express your feelings and trust your intuitive nature.
  6. Be willing to forgive and release anger quickly.
  7. Lighten up, let go, laugh and have fun.
  8. Learn to ride the wave of change.
  9. Recognize what causes you stress and develop coping strategies.
  10. Follow your joy and that which excites you.
  11. Know your limits and learn to say NO.
  12. Turn off communication devices periodically.
  13. Make time for yourself.
  14. Exercise.
  15. Develop a positive attitude.

About the Author

Dr. Jeffery Gero is a pioneer in the field of stress management and the creator of the Success of Stress System. For over 30 years, Dr. Gero has worked with many organizations and individuals dealing with a variety of stressors.

Several of his clients include General Motors, Sheraton Hotels, Dept of the Army, Xerox, Amgen and Dole. Dr. Gero coaches athletes and individuals to enhance their performance. He is also former director of the Health Awareness Institute and the Stress Management Institute of California.

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