Stress Can Take Years Off Our Lives. Here’s How to Stop It

Chronic stress can age us faster. A man stands underneath a cresting wave.

When it comes to our life spans, stress plays an important role. Believe it or not, our reactions to stress are designed to help us survive – it’s part of our “fight or flight” response. When we experience acute stress, a threat to our health, our body does all sorts of good things to help us get away from that danger or deal with it.

But too much of a good thing can be bad for our bodies and shorten our life expectancy. In fact, chronic stress, defined as a consistent sense of pressure over a long period of time, takes more years off our lives than being a couch potato (2.8 years vs. 2.4 years). And like being sedentary, heavy stress puts us at risk for diseases like depression, heart disease and diabetes that reduce our health span -- the time in our life we live without chronic conditions and mobility issues. 

Further, chronic stress actually speeds up our aging processes, especially at the cellular level. Read on to find out how stress ages us and for tips on how to stop it.

Stress leads to early cell death

At the end of our chromosomes, there is a small structure called a telomere that contains a copy of our DNA. Telomeres keep our chromosomes from becoming frayed or tangled, sort of like the plastic aglets at the end of our shoelaces. Telomeres essentially protect the ends of our chromosomes so that the most basic process of life, cell division, can safely take place. 

When our cells divide, telomeres shorten, and eventually, they become so short that cells can no longer divide. That’s when cell death happens.

You may be wondering what this science lesson has to do with stress? Studies show that chronic stress can actually shorten our telomere length, speeding up cell death and aging. 

Stress damages our ability to repair our DNA 

Emerging research shows that stress also damages our ability to repair our DNA. When our DNA goes unrepaired, it can lead to permanent mutations in our cells. These mutations accumulate and can become cancerous.

Though still not fully understood, stress may damage our DNA while inhibiting its repair. Researchers think this problem is caused by an excess of adrenaline or cortisol produced in response to stressors. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones that are at the center of our fight or flight response, but overexposure to them can disrupt many processes in our bodies. Overexposure has been linked to higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and weakened immune system. And in older adults, it’s tied to memory loss and cognitive issues.

Stress causes inflammation

Stress goes beyond damaging our bodies at the molecular level — it also causes larger systems in our bodies to overreact, especially our immune system. This, in turn, causes systemwide inflammation, raising our risk for a host of health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes. It can even impact our mood and influence mental health

When a stressful event occurs, our bodies prep for it by releasing certain kinds of cells into the bloodstream. Researchers thinks the body is preparing itself for injury or infection. In temporary or acute stress situations, this is considered a good thing. In fact, acute stress improves both our immune response. 

But if our body is constantly exposed to cortisol or other stress hormones, our immune system overreacts and produces inflammation. Essentially, stress disrupts our ability to regulate our immune system. Ironically, chronic stress also makes it harder for our bodies to fight the very infections our immune system is designed to stop.

Unfortunately, chronic inflammation ages us prematurely in several ways. While it increases our risk for chronic illnesses which shorten our life span and health span. Inflammation also messes up the regulatory controls of our cells. Again, not all the mechanisms are fully understood, but chronic stress-induced chronic inflammation is bad for our health.

How to tame chronic stress

There is good news. Chronic stress, and the age-related damage it causes, is manageable — and doesn’t necessarily require medications. The keys to managing stress also help other parts of your body and can help you live longer. Here are some proven approaches to mitigating the effects of stress:

  • Eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables. Dump your Western diet that’s comprised of life-shortening ingredients like highly processed foods.
  • Exercise regularly, mixing both aerobic and weight resistance programs.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Poor sleep is linked to many chronic illnesses.
  • Socialize with friends and family. Healthy social circles can help decrease stress.
  • Meditate, do yoga, get a massage or practice deep breathing. All of these techniques have been shown to relieve stress. They can also help your brain
  • Focus on hobbies.
  • Volunteer and keep a journal about what you’re grateful for.

Finally, talk to your primary care doctor. He or she can help you with techniques to manage your stress. They also need to know when you’re feeling stressed so they can help you protect your body against the damage chronic stress does.

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