How we age and thrive is directly related to what happens at a cellular level. Specifically, the health of a person’s telomeres has a major impact on their level of wellness. Telomeres are DNA strands coated protectively by certain proteins. They shorten with each cell division until eventually the cell dies. They are like the tips of shoe laces. Once the tips become too damaged the laces are no longer usable. The longer the telomeres, the longer the cell stays healthy. Shortened telomeres are associated with accelerated aging. The good news is the length of our telomeres is largely under our sphere of control. The way a person lives speaks directly to their telomeres. The foods one eats, the amount of the right kind of exercise, a person’s thoughts, and the response to life’s challenges all can affect telomere length.
Stress, or rather how we react to it, has a major influence on our telomeres and consequently how we age. Stress is unavoidable and attempts to eliminate all stress from your life is probably an exercise in futility. Like drinking, dose matters. Small doses of stress rarely cause long-term problems. However, chronic, unrelenting stress is another issue. There is evidence that this kind of stress can actually shorten telomeres, expedite aging, and subject a person to various diseases.
Fortunately for people living in unavoidably stressful situations, there is some good news. There are studies showing that telomere damage does not have to happen. In the excellent book “The Telomere Effect” the authors found that one type of stress was particularly harmful. This damaging stress is associated with a threat response. This is the same response one would experience if they felt their life was in danger. In that case, the heart rate increases, vessels constrict, digestion shuts down, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, circulation to the brain decreases, and the adrenal glands pump out cortisol. Shame, fear, and worry can also create a similar response. The stress itself does not appear to be the main problem. It is the feeling of being threatened by the stress that is damaging, even if the stress has not happened yet. Imagining it causes the same response. Many people have been conditioned to feel threatened by life circumstances. A traumatic childhood is one of the risk factors.
On a positive note, this harmful response to stress can be changed. The antidote to feeling threatened is to develop a challenge response instead. Our past experiences have a lot to do with how our brain predicts future events. The story needs to be reframed. Again, stress is unavoidable but changing our perception of it being there to help us instead of hurt us, is possible. The result will be less damage to our telomeres. It is a positive, action oriented response versus a negative, victim response. This puts one in a more empowered state. The mantra becomes “my stress response is trying to help me _____”
Along with an increase in physiological aging, shortened telomeres are also linked to a decrease in immune function and an increase in inflammation, both of which are associated with increased disease risk. Changing our response to stress is probably one of the most profound things people can do to stay healthy.
Dr. Dennis K. Crawford
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