Two new studies show that learning to manage stressful situations is an important part of living a long and healthy life. The trick is not to attempt the impossible — creating a stress-free existence — but learning how to respond to everyday stressors in ways that protect your mind, body and spirit.
Just how dangerous is stress? New research from the University of San Francisco found that healthy women under chronic stress, especially those who are caregivers, have lower levels of klotho, a hormone that regulates aging and improves cognition and brain function.
Many of the women in the study not only experienced stress, but also had depressive symptoms that most likely resulted from enduring stressful circumstances.
Turning a Negative Into a Positive
The study is just the latest to show that when we encounter stressful situations, our brains sound the alarm and our bodies launch the stress response sequence. The brain signals your adrenal glands to flood your body with adrenaline. As it circulates, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing changes, your blood sugar rises and your levels of inflammation rise. The changes happen so rapidly that you may scarcely notice, but over time, the stress response wears the body down, increasing your risk for a range of chronic health problems.
Learning to use positive emotions to reduce the impact of stress on your body is one way to protect your health, say researchers from Penn State. The latest work from Penn’s Center for Healthy Aging and Department of Biobehavioral Health shows that people who find ways to stay calm when facing stressful situations have much lower levels of inflammation. Chronic, long-term inflammation is thought to contribute to heart disease, cancer, obesity and other health problems.
“A person’s frequency of stress may be less related to inflammation than responses to stress,” said Nancy Sin, a researcher at Penn. “It is how a person reacts to stress that is important.”
The Penn team took blood samples from 872 adults, over a period of eight days, to measure inflammation as they reacted to everyday stressors. The study participants were interviewed to see how they reacted to situations such as arguing or avoiding an argument, being discriminated against or experiencing a stressful event that happened to someone else.
“We calculated reactivity scores to see how participants generally reacted to stressors,” Sin said. “Then we used it to predict two markers of inflammation.”
They found that women and men who maintained positive attitudes, and tried to remain cheerful and calm, had lower levels of inflammation.
Keeping Your Cool
The study is the first to link inflammation to positive mood reactions, but it’s part of a growing body of work on the health benefits of staying calm in the face of frustration and aggravation. Here are a few ways to cultivate peace at even the most difficult times:
Be grateful. Several studies emphasize the importance of gratitude, including one at the University of Berkeley showing that people who concentrated on being grateful had levels of cortisol (stress hormone) that were 23 percent lower than their cranky counterparts. Other studies show that a gratitude attitude helps people stay optimistic and avoid depression.
Let it go. Never mind asking “what if?” or “why me?” or other questions that will only fuel your anger and frustration while doing nothing to change your stressful circumstances. Focus on moving on.
Turn the other cheek. Fairly or unfairly, black women are often characterized as being quick to anger. There’s absolutely no doubt that the multiple insults that we sometimes face keep us on edge. But the next time you’re about to step to someone who just said something ignorant, forget about him or her and consider your health. Taking a few deep, cleansing breaths, humming a favorite spiritual and walking away may just add years to your life.
Get your rest. Lots of research reports that it’s much easier to avoid anxiety and irritation when you are well rested. Try to get at least seven hours each night and find ways to rest and recharge during the day, like taking a short, brisk walk.
Work out. Walk, run, bike, dance, play tennis, hike or do yoga — just get moving. Exercise is an excellent way to beat stress, while protecting your health.
Nurture your spirit. Whether you choose meditation, prayer, Buddhist chant or affirmations, people who engage in a religious or spiritual practice are not only more likely to be grateful. Prayer and meditation are great ways to calm yourself in tough situations.