Stress Can Age You

If stress does not kill you, it will at least age you.

Here’s a quick question. If you were to ask your friends (who obviously do not know your real age) how old you are, what do you think would their guess be. Would they think you are older or younger than your chronological age?

I just concluded a project with a company that had very high levels of stress. Although I promised myself that by going back to corporate work I would not let go of my yoga classes, I found myself missing first one class, then two, and before I knew it, I was going months without a yoga practice to speak of. Without my knowing it, I became too absorbed in work and its toxic effects. When I settled back into home life in January of this year, I got sick – TWICE. I think my body, running on adrenalin for the longest time, suddenly felt the letdown of all those months and broke down.

A few months into a home-based life again, I find myself able to resume yoga, be with my kids more (esp. now that it’s summer) and attend blogging events which are far, far from stress. Ever since I ventured into yoga, I have gotten comments from people I bump into and who knew me from decades ago when I was an upcoming corporate executive well-entrenched in the rat race, that I look younger now than I did then. I call yoga my age-regressing stress management treatment.

A finding that was presented at the 114th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that “age may be more related to reactions to stress and the absence of disease rather than to a person’s chronological age…“ Chronic stress, the kind that drags on rather than being just a momentary crisis, can drastically affect hormonal levels and shift the body’s hormonal balance.

Researcher Elissa Epel of the University of California, San Francisco, says it is likely that the imbalance in the hormones is responsible for many of the psychiatric and medical diseases associated with aging. Epel also said that chronically elevated cortisol reduces lean mass, bone density and shifts fat distributions that can precede the onset of many age-related diseases like osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease and major depression.

An article “Chronic Stress May Make You Age Faster” states that older adults often face chronic stress in the form of social isolation, bereavement, financial stress and caregiving. However, not all adults handle chronic stress the same way. Those able to take such stressors in stride often look younger than more stressed adults their age.

But there is good news: a healthy lifestyle and exercise can modify some of the hormonal effects that seem to accelerate aging. The article gave out some stress management techniques which I used as a benchmark against how I was doing in these areas:

* moderate exercise (reason why I am into yoga!)

* adequate sleep (this is still an area I need a lot of work on)

* being able to manage one’s goals and expectations (a trial and error situation till now but I am continuing to learn)

* accepting that one cannot always control things (yes, I used to be a control freak; I am learning to let go more often…)

* finding meaning in life (the raison d’etre for this blog)

* strengthening social ties (one of the major reasons why I am into blogging. I draw life from being around young bloggers)

* having spiritual or religious beliefs (being part of a prayer community for many years has given me a link to the Divine that I call on under stressful situations)

Are the effects of aging stress reversible?

If I go by my own personal experience, the answer is a resounding and reassuring YES!!!

Go ahead. Take the age test. Go ask a friend how old he/she thinks you are. Do not be upset by the answer if it was not what you expected. Take their answer as a chance to honestly look at yourself in the mirror and see how the stress you are subject to is affecting how you look. Identify those stressors and see what stress management techniques you can apply to start you off on the road to reversing its aging effects.

Do something NOW, while your body has not yet fallen into the disease traps set by stress. This is your gift not only to your loved ones, but most especially, a gift to YOURSELF!

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Effect of Stress on Women

My dear girl friends — READ ON!!! This explains why YOU are all so important in my life. You keep me sane, healthy, and alive! Thank you, Nicky (a guy friend) for passing this article on to moi…..

STUDY ON FRIENDSHIP AMONG WOMEN

By Gale Berkowitz
University of California, Los Angeles

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriages, and help us remember who we really are. By the way, they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis.

A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down.

“Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experienced stress, the condition triggered a hormonal cascade that prepared the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.”

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.” “In fact,” says Dr. Klein, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the ‘fight or flight’ response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men”, says Dr. Klein, “because testosterone —which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen”, she adds, “seems to enhance it.”

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic “aha!” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. “There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded,” says Dr. Klein. “When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.”

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake: The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.

“There’s no doubt,” says Dr. Klein, “that friends are helping us live.” In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.

In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

And that’s not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships/ (Three Rivers Press, 1998). “Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women,” explains Dr. Josselson. “We push them right to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women. It’s a very healing experience.”

Sources: Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R.A.R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000).

“Female Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight”, Psychological Review, 107(3), 41-429.

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