Stress and Dynamic Ageing
How can stress be both a life-saver and a destroyer of health, even a silent killer? If it helps us respond to immediate and clear danger, then it is obviously serving us well, just as it undoubtedly saved the lives of our long distant ancestors on a daily basis. It is in effect a safety mechanism designed to protect us, and looking at it somewhat lower on the scale, it can also give us a boost of energy, and keep us feeling sharp, alert and with our wits all about us. But the other side of the coin is that stress is a major contributing factor to countless health issues and is directly implicated in pretty much every single chronic illness – cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, a weak immune system, dementia/Alzheimer’s.
The statistics are frightening. For instance, in 2019/2020, a whopping 17.9 million working days were lost in the United Kingdom due to work-related stress and resulting depression and anxiety. There was of course an understandable jump in 2020, but the pattern is clear with a steady, unambiguous upward movement.
Our fast-paced, modern life-styles subject us to pretty much constant stress – noise, pollution, light, crowded environments, tight deadlines, unrealistic workloads, mortgage payments, commuting, trying to live up to other people’s expectations, personal and professional responsibilities, delicate relationships, unstable political situations, even just being perpetually busy - all of these contribute to ever-growing stimulation and nervous system exhaustion, as does my own personal bête noire, the never-ending fixation of keeping up to date with bad news!
It is of course difficult, if not impossible, to avoid many modern stressors like these, and they are so insidious because much of the time, they are unavoidable and we can’t get away from them. They have become an intrinsic part of 21st century life – in the developed world at least, to the extent that constant, prolonged daily stress actually feels normal. But what is happening in your body when you are under stress is far from normal, let alone healthy, because there is no doubt that stress accelerates disease as well as ageing.
The hormones released by a stress response have many consequences. For instance, they cause your heart to pump faster, thereby giving your body and brain an instant and powerful energy boost. Your muscles tense, cholesterol production increases and enzymes in the blood cause it to thicken. As though that weren’t enough, blood vessels constrict, endorphins are released and oxygen consumption is amplified. This is all very useful if you have to run for your life but if your body is preparing you day in day out for danger in the form of keeping up with one deadline after another, all the fight or flight hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which your adrenals are pumping out accumulate and become toxic as well as inflammatory. Free radicals are also building up.
So, how to cope with never-ending stress in our everyday lives? Certainly learning to do so surely has to be one of the most important tasks which we need to master in our 21st century lives – at least in the absence of the option of going off to live on the top of a mountain or a log cabin in the forest (and perhaps even that might become stressful due to boredom!).
How we react to stress is the key, because there is pretty much always a choice of responses, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time! And this ability to react is closely linked to taking care of number one, whether we allow ourselves to rest and relax, whether we make sure we pace ourselves, whether we get enough sleep, whether we give ourselves the opportunity to de-stress and recover.
And what can we do on a minute by minute basis? There are many ways to improve our stress response, but here are a few easy ones:-
· Laugh, it is a great de-stressor
· Get plenty of movement
· Spend time outdoors
· Sleep – an afternoon nap can do wonders, although admittedly that can be difficult to fit into a tight business schedule!
· Breathe deeply
· Connect with friends
· EAT A HEALTHY DIET!
· And in some cases, simply walk away