What’s more personal these days than stress?
Whether it’s stress in your students, stress in your own family or life, it seems that it’s on the rise. You might be feeling the twinge from job insecurity, school testing, your health, your parent’s health, or issues with your own kids.
None of this sounds good. But, what does stress REALLY do to your body and your brain?
First, let’s get something squared away. Stress is real; it’s the body’s response. It’s what you feel. But it’s only the response to a perception. The perception could be real or imagined. But it’s always the perception of loss of control over an adverse situation or person. In other words, the stress you experience is always about how you deal with life.
There are no stressful jobs, no stressful people and certainly no stressful classrooms. But there are teachers who experience stress in their dealings with those issues. If you think the stress is “out there,” you’ll always be miserable. Why? The world “out there” will never change.
But your brain is malleable; you’ve heard me say that for years. If you allow yourself to experience life as highly stressful, your brain will adapt to that higher stress load. It’s called “allostasis”; the word means “adjusted stability.” Your brain literally resets its own stress thermostat, so a higher stress load becomes the “new norm.” Examples of a “new norm” are depression, general anxiety disorder, PTSD, and chronic stress disorders. Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University is a pioneer in this field.
Why should you care about all this science? Why care about allostasis and chronic aging? We’ll get to that in a moment.
Under a strong microscope, your chromosomes look like cartoon characters. They have what looks like yellow bootie caps (shoes, not butts) on their ends. These caps look like stacked rubber bands and they’re known as telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes.
But they’re the “canary in the coal mine” because they offer insight into cell longevity. Telomeres are like the ‘toner cartridge’ in your chromosome’s ‘copy machine.’ Your cells need to make copies when they damaged, and when you run out of ‘toner’ your ‘copy machine is useless.’ You start life with enough ‘toner’ for about 1700 total copies. By the time you’re 70, you’re down to 300 ‘copies’ left. The relevance of this is that telomeres are a strong indicator of aging.
Enough of the science background. Let’s get to something personal, like those signs of aging in your body.
Chronic stress is significantly associated with known determinants of aging (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 (Epel et al., 2004). In fact, women under chronic stress aged 9-17 YEARS faster than their peers. This process also contributes to cognitive decline as well (Karlamangla et al. 2002).
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 (O’Donovan et al., 2009). In men, poorer health, erratic sleep behaviors, financial insecurity, and occupational status all influence chronic stress indicators. Between both sexes, social rejection events and negative self-referential cognitions (e.g., “I’m undesirable”, “Other people don’t like me”, etc.) contribute to the stress response and potential acceleration of aging.
By the way, in the remote case you are unconcerned about accelerated aging, here are some of the other adverse effects of chronic stress: worsened short term memory, weaker social skills, increased susceptibility to illness, inability to concentrate, slower cognitive processing, weaker decision-making (Lupien, et al., 2007) and did I already mention poor short term memory?
In addition, the more stressed we are, the less likely one is to make changes in their life; chronic stress increases perseverative behaviors (“we get stuck”).
Applications and Contributions
Have I gotten you depressed? Is there any good news? Can anything recover your life and even those pesky indicators of aging known as telomeres? Actually, there are many ways to reduce the effects of chronic stress. As usual, it boils down to mind and body.
So far, the science has measured two things that actually slow aging (and no, it is not another product from Olay or L’Oreal!)
In one study, 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.) For this, may I suggest a book? The Four-hour Body by Tim Ferriss, is one of the best.
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 (Moskowitz JT, Epel ES, Acree M. 2008). We also know meditation works (Jacobs TL, et al. 2010). Intensive meditation, which helps one gain mindfulness, may have positive effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal. This was the first study to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity.
For more on this, may I suggest a book? The book is Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons.
Oh, one other thing: in nearly every autobiography written by those over the age of 50, they lament how they wish they would have worried less and let go of things more. Today’s a good day to start that in your own life. If it won’t matter in a week, it might not be worth fussing over.
Use your brain, and remember, brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen (maybe in your own life!)
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