Don’t Worry, Be Healthy
How stress plays a role in aging, how to deal with everyday stress and how to remove stresses from your life
By Lisa Iannucci, CTW Features
Work, the kids, money situations, relationship issues and the everyday grind – stress is in our daily lives and, for some of us, it’s affecting our physical and mental well-being.
The good news is that not all stress is bad.
“There’s nothing like a deadline to make you do something you’ve been talking about for a long time,” says Kate Hanley, personal development coach and author of Stress Less: Stop Stressing, Start Living (Adams Media, 2017). “It can inspire us to get stronger and iterate simply because we have to.”
Hanley says it’s when stress becomes chronic that it ages us. “It accelerates the heart and respiration rate, essentially make us live more in less time,” she says. “Research has also shown it can shorten our telomeres, which seal our strands of DNA. Shorter telomeres means more vulnerable DNA which means more physical deterioration.”
She explains that our autonomic nervous system has two major functions – flight or fight, aka the stress response, or rest and digest. “If you are constantly in stress mode you never get into healing mode,” she says.
For example, according to Galina Denzel, co-author of “Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 Ways to Feel Better In a Week” (Propriometrics Press, 2016), moms who are caregiving for kids with chronic illnesses have telomeres that shorten six times faster than that of their peers.
“Interestingly, things like social support and feeling the care and compassion of others can slow the process down,” she says. “There are other mechanisms, such as poor self-regulation, loss of sleep, emotional eating, excess body weight, lack of movement, that can contribute to aging, too, just by keeping the body on most of the time and never giving it enough of a chance to turn off and rest. This practically wears you down, just by virtue of use.”
Is it even possible to avoid stress? Somewhat. “Minimizing the time you spend with combative or otherwise dramatic people, for example, can go a long way toward lowering stress levels,” Hanley says. “So can leaving a stressful job, or changing a harrowing commute, or not automatically saying yes to things you truly don’t enjoy.”
Don’t expect to have a completely stress-free life however. “You can’t completely cut stress out of your life,” she says. “An unexpected car honk is stressful; so is inclement weather and illness. While you want to take steps to reduce unnecessary stress, we all need skills to help us cope with it. It’s like death and taxes – unavoidable.”
You may not be able to get rid of a stressor, but Denzel explains that how you hold onto it affects you in a different way. “It’s helpful to recognize what the reaction is, learn to name it, then explore the physical sensations relating to it, allowing them to be in the body, and then creating a kind way to relate to the self in the midst of the situation,” she says.
It’s not easy to make a change, but there are benefits.
“Make a list of everything unpleasant that stress is causing you,” Hanley says. “Don’t hold back here; be ruthlessly honest with yourself and then. Write down what new and better feelings and results will be available to you once you’ve removed the stressor. Take a moment to imagine how good you’ll feel when you’ve done.”
To help reduce your stress levels further, Hanley suggests doing anything that gets your mind and body on the same page before you start checking email or your phone.
“That could mean sitting up in bed and counting your exhales, starting over when you get to 10, for two minutes – I call this beditating,” she says. “It could also be sitting someplace quiet and giving your morning beverage your full attention for your first 10 sips, or a tech-free walk around the block after you get out of your car but before you head in to the office.”
Do something to access inner quiet to fuel you later in the day. “Remember you can always choose to pause and take a breath before you respond to any stressors,” Hanley says.
To help remove a chronic stressor, Hanley says to get very clear on the discomfort it is causing you. “Otherwise, you’ll get the idea to do something about it but then quickly dismiss it because when you’re not experiencing it in the moment you’ll tell yourself it’s not really that bad,” she says.
Staying connected to the body is something that Denzel teaches all of her students. “You can start your day by placing a hand on your heart and one on your belly and just feeling the rhythm of your breath,” she says. “Noticing how you inhale and exhale can help you connect to your body and you can come to that in times of stress. Various kinds of meditation practices are lifesavers here. Practicing meditation in the morning, whether sitting or walking, can be a great buffer to the stressors of the day.”
If it’s a biological stressor such as too much noise, Denzel says that easy fixes, such as soundproofing, wearing earplugs and other practical measures can decrease it.
For example, Denzel says that if your boss is always pressuring you to hand in reports before the deadline, recognize that it makes you upset and allow the physical sensations of feeling upset. “Then, name it and remind yourself to pause and be kind to yourself in anger.”
Hanley says that we spend a lot of time thinking about how hard it will be to make the change, and not nearly enough time contemplating how much better we’ll feel, and less stressed we’ll be, once we’ve done it.
© CTW Features