The authors of Stopping the Clock said numerous studies have shown that your health is greatly affected by how you react to stressful events in life-setbacks or deadlines at work, conflicts and losses at home. By the same token, they said changing your reactions, learning to meditate or do other relaxation techniques, and generally committing to a positive, open attitude toward life can help make you younger.
What is stress?
More than half a century ago, the authors said Dr. Hans Selye recognized the mind-body connection involved with stress, as all of his patients had similar physiological and psychological characteristics. Two of which were loss of appetite and increased blood pressure. Further studies with laboratory animals found that these same physical responses existed with the animals when they were put under stress. Selye came to the conclusion that stress is ‘the nonspecific response of the body to any demand placed upon it.’ However, Selye added it is not stress that harms us, but distress. Distress occurs when we prolong emotional stress and don’t deal with it in a positive manner.
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Selye referred to our body’s response to stress-or distress-as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). This consists of three different stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The alarm stage is comparable to the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response, during which the body releases the hormone cortisol and prepares to either battle whatever is threatening it or retreat.
The authors said that since many modern-day stressors are not physical things we can run from and escape immediately, the alarm stage is lengthened, leading up to the next phase-resistance. This stage, they added, allows us to adjust our body to counteract the physiologic changes in response to the stress. However, if the stress factor does not disappear, the third stage occurs-exhaustion. It is during exhaustion that the body creates a situation of distress, and responses can range from extreme fatigue to disease and possibly death.
Stress and aging
Dr. Ronald Klatz and Dr. Robert Goldman said stress in itself is not necessarily a negative thing. ‘The term stress simply refers to any situation-physical, emotional or both-that requires any bodily response more active than equilibrium. A slight change in temperature is experienced by the body as stress, i.e., a demand from nature to mobilize the body’s resources and raise or lower body temperature. A new love affair is stressful even while it is blissful, as it evokes your intense attention to a new person and creates powerful emotions that demand a new kind of attention to yourself. Playing tennis, negotiating a big deal, planning a birthday party for your child, even reading an exciting mystery novel, are all sources of stress in that they demand physical or emotional responses from you, pleasurable though these activities may be.’
Where stress becomes negative is in our responses to it, the authors said. ‘If your reaction to negotiating a big deal is not pleasurable suspense but a killing anxiety, then your body will probably respond with a headache or stomachache, and your immune system may become weaker, as well. If the daily drive to work is the occasion for a hundred little explosions of temper, you’re creating a level of negative stress that will affect your body quite differently than if you enjoy the challenge of driving skillfully through crowded city streets.’
They explained that this type of negative stress creates a number of ailments, from mental frustration, anxiety and depression to headaches, allergies, ulcers and heart disease. In the long run, negative responses to stress can wear down the immune system, potentially leading to cancer and other diseases traditionally associated with aging.
The authors added: ‘Many studies have beed done on the physical stress response in the elderly, and it was found that when placed under stress, elderly people experienced loss of appetite, weight loss, a lowered lymphocyte count-which impairs immune function-and an increase in psychological distress and serum cholesterol levels. Moreover, negative stress increases your body’s production of free radicals.’
Cortisol may be a particularly dangerous catabolic hormone as far as aging is concerned. High cortisol levels, generated by negative responses to stress, interfere with your immune system. Cortisol does not only interrupts your body’s production of antibodies, it may actually destroy antibodies already in circulation. Although stress-induced cortisol levels affect people of all ages, the loss of cortisol receptors in the brain-a sign of aging-may be responsible for the generally higher levels of cortisol among the elderly, and consequently their heightened vulnerability to diseases. Furthermore, laboratory studies have shown that the duration of the stress reaction is longer in older animals, possibly explaining the decreased rate of cortisol elimination with age.
The authors cited a number of ways you can combat the destructive effects of a negative response to stress. They said diet and exercise play a large part in your responses. The B vitamins, in particular, help your mind and body cope with stress, while regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, enables you to meet life’s challenges with more relaxed and healthy attitude-and fewer symptoms of negative physical stress. They added that one effective way of coping with stress is meditation. Daily meditation seems to have the long-term benefit of lowering anxiety, improving mental functioning and, in the long run, helps you fight aging. Finally, they said that ‘the best way to stay young and live long is to love your life, filling it with a wide variety of challenges and joys that nourish your mind, body and spirit.’