There’s no getting around it, unless, perhaps, you’re a multi-millionaire who owns a private island: modern life is stressful.
Unlike our primitive ancestors, whose main worries were obtaining basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter, we have more complicated lives, more sources of stress and more opportunities for the stress to wreak havoc with our bodies.
During the days when our ancestors dwelt in caves, danger came from the climate and from the animals they hunted for food and clothing — physical dangers. These stressors were temporary and people reacted to them with the fight or flight response that our bodies still use today, says Marc Davis in the Huffington Post:
“their adrenal glands sent a burst of adrenaline into their bloodstreams, increasing blood flow to the muscles and raising their heart rates. Their livers produced additional glucose for fuel and their bodies produced cortisol, which we, today, often call the stress hormone.
Cortisol raised their blood pressure, allowing the brain and the muscles to access more oxygen, and it allowed them to access more fatty acids as fuel. However, once the threat had passed, the response shut down and the body’s systems returned to normal.”
Today, our bodies still secrete cortisol when confronted with stress, just as they did thousands of years ago, but there are more stressors in our lives. We’re dealing not only with physical challenges but with emotional stressors, too.
Financial pressures, the demands of the workplace, hectic schedules — all of these can contribute to increasing our stress levels. All kinds of worries can trigger the body’s flight or fight response: anxiety over a presentation at work; workplace bullying; or concern about whether you’ll be able to pay all your monthly bills on time.
These regular doses of cortisol aren’t good for us. They can weaken our immune systems, injure brain cells and lead to heart disease. Additionally, cortisol affects us at the cellular level, too, by aging us faster.
“It’s not clear that the mediators of physiological stress and psychological stress are different. Both, in the end, have molecular underpinnings,” said Richard Hodes, director of the United States National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, told the Washington Post.
All of us have telomeres, protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes that indicate biological age. Shorter telomeres are a cause of aging, but they are also a result of the aging process. Every time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres.
They can be replenished by an enzyme called telomerase, Elissa Epel, the director of the Center for Aging, Metabolism, and Emotion at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), explained in an interview with the American Psychological Association’s publication, the Monitor. However, the body’s supply of telomerase is decreased by exposure to chronic stress and cortisol. In other words, ongoing stress promotes aging.
“Our brains are constantly looking for threats to our survival,” said Epel. “When we expose our bodies to years of chronic stress arousal, we see effects that override normal aging, making our telomeres look like they are from a significantly older person.”
One way to combat stress and its harmful effects is meditation. Researchers are Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh studied changes in the brains of 35 job-seeking adults who were feeling the stress of unemployment after they engaged in meditation.
Participants were either assigned to an intensive three-day meditation program or to general relaxation sessions. The brains of those who took part in the meditation exercise showed new neural connections, especially in the areas of the brain that regulate behavior. They also showed a reduction in a biological marker related to inflammatory issues.
Researchers concluded that these changes led to increased production of a biological marker that improved their abilities to handle stress and its consequences, including inflammation.
Aerobic exercise is another way to combat stress and its biological impact, noted Epel from UCSF, since exercise is a major antidote to stress’ consequences. One of her colleagues, Professor Eli Puterman, has shown that exercise influences the stress-telomere (aging) relationship.
He has also demonstrated that a healthy lifestyle can buffer people against the negative effects of stressful events. Meditation is an integral component of a healthy lifestyle in the modern age.
“If you have a really stressful year, yes, your telomeres may take a hit, but not if you are doing the daily work of health maintenance — exercising, eating fruits and vegetables, and getting enough sleep,” Epel told the Monitor. “If you’ve got those habits, your telomere attrition looks like someone who glided through the year with no big stressful events.”
The takeaway? Stress is present in most of our lives, but it needn’t be debilitating. Healthy lifestyle choices, including meditation, provide an effective antidote to the damage that modern stress causes to our bodies and our minds.
Not meditating yet? It’s easier than you think.