Healthy aging: Stressing about stress

When we look at the factors that have an impact on healthy aging, one of the most important issues is the level of stress in our lives. We have learned over the last 10 years that stress makes our cells “age” more rapidly.

In 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work in telomere physiology. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that help the cell stay healthy and not divide too soon. She studied two groups of women. One group consisted of mothers with children who were chronically ill, the other had healthy children. The mothers with ill children understandably had much higher levels of stress than the other women. When Blackburn measured the telomeres in both, otherwise equivalent, groups, the stressed group had telomeres and cells that looked 10 years older than the non-stressed group. Clearly, stress has an impact on aging.

Stress is the wear and tear our minds and bodies experience as we attempt to cope with our continually changing environment. Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand. It can be caused by both good and bad experiences.

There is a fine line between positive and negative stress

When people feel stressed by something going on around them, their bodies react by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals give people more energy and strength, which can be a good thing if their stress is caused by physical danger. But this can also be a bad thing, if their stress is in response to something internal or emotional and there is no outlet for this extra energy. People are often stressed about things they cannot control. It can make individuals feel panicked, depressed, anxious, frightened, tense, fatigued and unmotivated. Whether stress is internally driven, or externally focused, most stress is self-induced. So how can we handle the stresses in our everyday lives?

The first step is to figure out what is causing your stress. Has there been a change in your work environment, are you overworked? Is there uncertainty in your life, or are you dealing with conflicts? What’s going on at home and in your personal life? Are you facing a major life event – marriage, divorce, a new baby, financial issues?


Once we understand what’s causing our stress, there are a few things that can be done to mitigate it:

Find balance There is a fine line between positive and negative stress. Determine how much you can cope with before it becomes negative.

Control If you have reached the breaking point, then it is time to take control of the situation. What can you do to help yourself combat the negative effects of your stress?

Re-frame Use reframing, which is a technique to change the way one looks at things, in order to feel better about them. There are many ways to interpret the same situation. Reframing does not change the external reality, but helps one view things in a different light.

Positive thinking Forget powerlessness, dejection, despair and failure – stress leaves us vulnerable to negative suggestion, so focus on positives. Focus on your strengths. Look for opportunities to focus on positive events in your life.

What we learned from Blackburn’s study was that the most important factor in determining someone’s stress level is that person’s perception of her stress. We not only need to decrease the stresses around us that we can control, we also need to change our perception of them.

Let’s learn to look at stresses as challenges – exciting opportunities to move forward and embrace our future. n