by JACLYN PORTANOVA
With almost half a million people worldwide who are 100 years of age or older, there is now research that points to what these centenarians have in common. While good diet, frequent exercise, and other lifestyle factors are important, one factor seems to dominate them all: successful stress management. Ping Ho, the founding director of UCLArts and Healing,* states that, “Stress not only has a direct impact, but it also harms us indirectly by affecting our other behaviors like diet, exercise, sleep, substance use, and interactions with others.” The ability to cope with stress and having a generally positive attitude are strong predictors for longevity.
Your body was designed to handle good stress. Normal stress that is brief and intense such as studying for a test can be beneficial. Stress can be used to motivate you and can serve as a tool to perform tasks more efficiently and improve memory. Some college students may find that the stress of doing poorly on a test motivates them to study more. This positive stress is termed “eustress,” “eu” means good or advantageous as opposed to distress. It has even been suggested that mild stress revamps the recovery system and slows down the aging process. In terms of survival, stress is essential. The fight-or-flight response is thought to have evolved to keep humans alive in dangerous situations. Some researchers reason that people can channel their stress to more successfully execute the tasks that are important to them.
On the other hand, chronic stress increases cortisol levels, which raises blood pressure and breaks down stored energy reserves. This is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat and this process can kill memory-forming neurons. According to a 2007 study published in Biological Psychiatry, people suffering from prolonged stress score poorly on memory tests. This chronic stress can be due to negative relationships or living situations. Ho adds, “unaddressed emotional or physical trauma can also be a source of chronic stress.” In fact, chronic stress is tied to high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and exhaustion.
Additionally, stress makes us age because it damages our DNA. One potential mechanism for this damage has to do with telomeres. A telomere is the DNA located at the end of a chromosome. As a telomere shortens, it ages and eventually the cell will die. This is the effect that is seen prematurely in those who experience too much bad stress. According to a 2007 study published in Biology Letters, telomeres are actually shorter in those who experience more chronic stress than normal subjects. A stressful situation does not even need to actually occur for the effects of stress to appear in the body. In a 2012 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, researchers found that perceived threat and anticipatory stress have a similar effect. The study concludes, “First, the tendency to perceive higher levels of threat in anticipation of daily life stressors may impact cellular aging. Secondly, higher anticipatory threat is a potential psychological mechanism by which diverse stressor exposures and states of clinical distress (e.g., PTSD, depression, anxiety) could accelerate cellular aging and increase risk for diseases of aging.”
Many researchers refer to adaptive competence as the ability to bounce back from life’s curveballs. Centenarians tend to possess this trait. They notably have an optimistic view of life. According to a 2002 study published in Journals of Gerontology on people in their 50’s, those who agreed with statements citing negative feelings about aging died 7.5 years younger than those who viewed their aging more positively. For those who do not react well to adverse events, identifying appropriate ways to cope, such as journaling or talking to a friend, can help. These outlets will help release feelings of stress and tension and allow for a fresh start. We can also change the way our brains respond to stress using deep breathing, exercise and meditation.
Ways to Reduce Stress
We can reduce stress by engaging in activities that change our focus, unwind our symptoms, and/or address the cause. Here are some of Ho’s simple ways to reduce stress:
Exercise is the closest thing there is to a panacea; it's on every disease prevention list. Exercise gets us to breathe. When we are stressed, we tend not to breathe often or deeply enough. The more fit we are, the better able our bodies are to handle stress. Stretch, take a walk, hike, throw a frisbee, skateboard to class, play a pickup game of sports, swim, or go to the gym. Disciplines such as yoga, tai chi or qi gong have additional meditative benefits that help bring balance to life.
Spend time in nature
Go for a hike, spend time at the beach or lake, visit a park.
Engage in a creative activity
Paint, sing, dance, play an instrument, join a drum circle. Creative expression can facilitate insight, emotional and physical release, and social connection. UCLArts and Healing offers opportunities to participate in the arts for well-being.
Listen to music
“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” - Plato
Rant on paper to let off steam. Write about a traumatic event in a stream of consciousness style. Write about an event from another person's point of view to gain some perspective. Write about a problem in your life and re-write it the way you would like it to turn out, to lay the foundation for new behavior. As far as the brain is concerned, imagined behavior is real. Write at least three times and share what you write with someone, to expand the therapeutic value. Or just write for fun. Write a tribute in rhyme for someone's birthday. Preserve a cherished memory in writing, with all five senses. Find a picture that means something to you and tell the story behind it.
Keep a gratitude list
Write three to five things a day for which you are grateful. Gratitude can change your outlook and experience of life.
There are numerous meditations available online. Take advantage of the free mindful meditation podcasts and free drop-in meditation opportunities through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Get a massage, or exchange neck, upper back, and foot massages with your buddies.
Read or listen to something funny. Spend time with someone who makes you laugh. Go to a funny movie or play. Participate in entertaining games or improvisational activities.
“Laughter is a metaphor for the full range of positive emotions.” - Norman Cousins
Take a nap
A 10 to 30-minute power nap will give you a burst of alertness and energy that will stay with you longer than eating sweets for energy.
Call or get together with a friend
Social connection is important for longevity.
Do something you enjoy or take up something new
Experiment with cooking, explore hidden finds or unique enclaves in the city, improve your photography or capture funny candids, try your hand at chess, or take salsa dancing lessons. Invite someone to join you in your forays.
Reach out to someone in need
Compassion for others benefits us as well.
"…the more we care about the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being." - The Dalai Lama
*UCLArts and Healing (www.uclartsandhealing.net.), an organizational member of the UCLA Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine, facilitates the use of the arts in the community as a vehicle for empowerment and transformation.
Summer 2012 | Vol. 12 | Issue 4