You've heard about amazing centenarians who swear that they reached their 100th birthday thanks to their good genes. Or clean living. Or selectively dirty living. Or the glass of wine a day that killed the germs. Or the weekly cigar that did the same. Or the strict exercise regimen that kept them running until their grandkids had kids of their own.
But researchers say there may be another reason: They live longer because they learned how to not just manage stress, but rebound from it.
There's a direct link between psychological stress and biological aging, says Thea Singer in her new book, "Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind." And, as I point out at The 36-Hour Day and Yahoo!'s Shine, that link goes all the way down to our cells.
In a groundbreaking study, 2009 Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., and health psychologist Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., both at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that that chronic stress "literally gnaws at our DNA—its tips, or telomeres, to be precise—speeding up the rate at which our cells age." In fact, Singer says, "Women who perceived themselves as being under the most stress had telomeres that were shorter by equivalent of 10 years."
Telomeres, Singer explains, protect the ends of our chromosomes "like the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace protects the shoelace from fraying." Babies have longer telomeres than adults, simply because
they've been exposed to less stress than adults have. As our cells reproduce, our telomeres become shorter, until they're so short that they can't offer enough protection anymore; that's when we start to see the signs of aging.
But you can actually turn back the clock, but not by trying to avoid stress completely. Turns out, some types of stress are actually good for us.
"Basically, we've been hearing forever that stress can make us sick," Singer says. "When people hear the word stress, they often think 'bad.' But is we got rid of stress, as Bruce S. McEwen puts it, we'd be dead."
"Acute stress—short term, intermittent stress, or 'challenge' stress—is actually good for us," Singer
points out. "Exercise is a form of good stress. And sex has been shown to be a form of good sex in mice!" Where we get into trouble is with chronic or constant stress. "When the
stressors don't let up, when it's chronic or consistently repeating, there's no time to come back to baseline." And that's when it starts to really affect our physical health.
Acting, instead of fretting, in the face of stress can give you a feeling of being in control of your circumstances. And, as Singer points out in her book, studies show that people who feel that they are in control actually look different from people who feel that they are not.
I'm all about the action -- when it comes to stress, at least. Here are a few things you do to change the way you deal with stress (and lengthen your tolemeres in the process):
1. Exercise. It can help stress-proof your brain, so that when you're in a stressful circumstances, your brain will be less reactive. "People who exercise have longer telomeres, too," Singer points out. The trick is to find a form of exercise that you really enjoy; when your work-out is a chore, your body releases stress hormones that undermine the positive effect of the exercise.
2. Eat mindfully, but don't diet. Omega-3 fatty acids and pistachio nuts (1.5- to 3-ounces per day) are the superfoods to watch for, but eating only when hungry and learning really savor and experience your meals makes more of a difference—and causes less physical and psychological stress—than dieting.
3. Sleep is really important. Without enough, your whole stress threshold is lower. If you think you'll have trouble sleeping, a hot bath taken 90 minutes before bedtime can help. Our bodies need to be relatively cool in order to achieve that slow-wave sleep that we really need, Singer says, and soaking in a hot bath elevates your body temperature, and when you get out you cool down rapidly, which helps you slip into a deeper
4. Counter negativity. That doesn't mean you need to put on those rose-colored glasses, Singer says. Look for the good things in your day and write them down or tell someone about them in order to "bring it into the world" and put things in perspective. Keep a gratitude journal, focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, do something nice for someone else, set reasonable and attainable goals, and put a positive spin on a negative experience.
5. Meditate. Or, at least, remember to breathe deeply. It can actually slow down the aging process. Singer writes that daily meditation can lead to an increase in perceived control which, in turn, decreases stress and increases the amount of the enzyme telomerase in your body. More telomerase means longer telomeres.
Stress gets bad "when we're ruminating, we're worrying, we're obsessing about things and we're not
expending any of the physical energy," Singer says. "It's in heads, but it's our bodies and brains that
pay the price."
How do you rebound from stress?