Studies have shown that people who are not good at managing their stress can increase their risk of dying prematurely by 43%
Dublin: A little stress can be good for your mental and physical well-being, but too much stress can lead to anxiety, depression and other health problems. It can also make you age faster. It is therefore important to learn how to become more resistant to stress if you are not in a hurry to age quickly.
Studies have shown that people who are not good at managing their stress can increase their risk of dying prematurely by 43%. The increase in deaths could in part be due to the effect of stress on DNA.
DNA, which is found in almost all cells (except red blood cells), contains genes that code for the building blocks (proteins) that make up your body. DNA is made up of two strands woven together in the famous double helix. Your cells are constantly making copies of themselves, and when a cell divides, the two strands unravel and an identical copy is made from each well, most of the time.
Sometimes errors occur during the replication process, especially at the end of DNA strands. These errors can cause mutations in the copied DNA, leading to the cancerous cell. Fortunately, cells have protective caps called telomeres at the ends of the DNA strand that are designed to prevent these errors from occurring.
Telomere caps are like strings of beads (telomere repeats). Each time the cell divides, the next generation loses a bead of telomere repeats. Unfortunately, each cell has a fixed number of these repeats, meaning it can only replicate a certain number of times before the protective telomere caps are eroded.
This number of cell divisions is called the Hayflick limit. Once a cell reaches the Hayflick limit (up to 60 cell divisions, for most cells), it self-destructs (safely). This is the essence of aging.
Certain cells in the body, especially immune cells that fight infection, have molecules called telomerase.
Telomerase can add the beads (telomere repeats) back into immune cells (and some others, such as cancer cells), which means that aging can be reversed in these cells. Telomerase can add the beads back, which means aging can be reversed in the cells in question.
This makes sense because immune cells need to replicate multiple times to fight off viruses and bacteria. Without telomerase, they would reach their Hayflick limit and die out, leaving organisms unprotected. Unfortunately, even telomerase stops working properly when people reach their 80s and lose their immune cells due to aging.
It’s not all out of your control
Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, being overweight, and stress are all associated with telomere loss. Telomerase does not work as efficiently when a person is under excessive stress, which causes premature aging.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle, such as following a plant-based diet, can stop and even reverse the process. And physical activity, especially strenuous exercise, can also increase telomerase activity. So leading a healthy lifestyle can slow the rate of aging, as can managing your stress.
As we mentioned earlier, not all stress is bad. In psychology, we differentiate between eustress (positive stress), necessary for our success at work, in sport and in relationships, and distress (negative stress), when the pressure becomes too much to handle. Distress is what most of us mean when we say or feel we are stressed; it is also what could accelerate the aging of your cells.
It is therefore not necessary to protect yourself from all stress, only from distress that lasts a long time, is relentless and prevents you from living your life to the fullest.
Accepting stressful events and using coping strategies such as asking friends for help or becoming resourceful in the face of challenges can build stress resilience, which in turn is associated with longer telomeres. Additionally, re-evaluating an anxiety-provoking event, such as public speaking, by perceiving it as exciting can help you manage stress. These techniques can prevent eustress from turning into distress and improve stress resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and become resistant to daily stressors. Along with problem solving, social support, and effective use of coping strategies, mindfulness can also help you become more resilient to everyday stressors.
Other techniques involve doing things that enhance your positive emotions, such as reading a book, listening to music, or playing a video game. Experiencing positive emotions expands your mind, allowing you to perceive and tap into your psychological, intellectual, and social resources, especially when encountering adversity. We cannot yet be sure that these psychological strategies affect telomeres and by extension the aging process.
However, telomere length and telomerase activity in your cells appear to be negatively affected by stress and positively affected by stress management. So if you have any lifestyle changes you can make to help you build resilience to stress, you might want to adopt them. They might not make you live as long as an arctic shark, but they could add precious years to your life.