Five Strategies to Increase Longevity by Changing Your Response to Stress

  • Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
    Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
  • Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
    Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
  • Michael F. Roizen, MD
  • Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
  • Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg
  • Michael F. Roizen MD

Five strategies to increase longevity by changing your response to stress.

When it comes to health doctrines, we accept many of them as absolutes: Broccoli is good, cigarettes are bad, and never—under any circumstances—should you perform a knee replacement on yourself. More often than not, we are correct: Most of our health mantras come about after years of science have confirmed some variation of a + b = c. Sometimes we do not have enough data to really know the answer yet, but other times, health messages that we hear day after day are either wrong or outdated. 

Stress falls into this category. For too long, we have been hammered with the message that stressful events are bad, and therefore we must prevent stress. Stressful events get compared with rough ocean seas, battering your brain and churning up angst that wreaks biological havoc on the body. What you need, the thinking goes, is tranquility: flat-as-glass water with no chop, no disruption—just a peaceful existence that allows you to sit back and watch the sun rise and the sun set, idling your life away. Well, that is just wrong! 

While it is absolutely true that stressful events can mix up your innards like a blender, the wrongly framed message is that the only way to stop the turmoil is to avoid stress and settle down to an easy-peasy existence. The end goal is not to bubble-bath your way through every day; we need the challenges of life to keep us stimulated, engaged, and passionate about what we do and who we are. The point is not to avoid stressful events but to minimize the aging impact of stress. 

But here is the key point with stress: The human body, at least evolutionarily, knows exactly how to handle stress, even if you do not consciously have the slightest clue. What do I mean by that? Well, when the body is under stress, it reacts by helping us get out of the situation. In generic terms, this is the fight-or-flight response. In biological terms, it is quite masterful.
Thousands of years ago, if you found yourself locking eyes with a sharp-toothed beast, you had two choices if you did not want to end up as a Paleolithic appetizer: You would either get the heck out of there or say, “Let’s go, big boy, want some of this?” You flee or you face off. Here’s the thing: Your body can do neither in its normal, everyday, ho-hum state. How the heck are you supposed to summon the capacity to bolt out of a dangerous situation or punch with hammer-like power if you are peacefully lollygagging along in life?

So the body essentially pushes the red emergency button to activate a stress response. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and a series of hormonal responses kick in—giving the body the power to run or to strike. All of those responses are good; they are what allow blood to pump and energy to get to your muscles to take care of the task in front of you. They raise energy and alertness, as well as blood sugar to fuel muscles and provide the wherewithal to get away. And when you are safely at home, disaster averted, your system quiets down and goes back to its chilling-on-a-rock state of happiness. 

Now fast-forward to a time when sharp-toothed animals come in the form of grueling travel schedules, deadlines, in-laws, health issues, divorce, kids getting in trouble at school, and all the zillion other things that can cause stress. Those problems linger. You cannot always fight or flee and be done with the problem in front of you. Biologically, the emergency button is not on for a short period and then off: It’s on all the time. And that means the heart rate soars, blood pressure increases, and hormone levels elevate—for longer periods than they are designed to—and that has a direct effect on your health. 

Increased cortisol and epinephrine, also known as adrenalin (two of the stress hormones that rise when your pituitary gland tells your adrenal glands that you are under duress), raise your blood sugar so your muscles have energy to run or punch. But that increase now fouls up the protein that forms a grout-like substance between the cells that tile the inner layer of your arteries, making them more vulnerable to high blood pressure and more likely to develop tears or nicks. Once your arteries tear or sustain damage, the body tries to repair them by sending lousy LDL-cholesterol-laden fatty streaks, which become (over years or even decades) plaques and then blockages. That furthers the process of increasing blood pressure and your risk for heart attacks, strokes, impotence, memory loss, and other cardiovascular problems. In a state of chronic stress, all that excess blood sugar usually ends up in the form of damaging belly fat, which causes inflammation and impairs your infection-fighting defense system. You also raise your risk of developing diabetes, as well as autoimmune diseases and cancer. What’s more, cortisol decreases your memory reserve by pruning your brain connections.

Stress is not damaging in its own right. And it is not damaging because it makes you depressed and frustrated and anxious, although those reactions can be destructive. The greatest harm stems from the domino effect of the chemical reactions caused by chronic stress. Stress should not be defined as the event itself but rather your reaction to the event.

The goal is to mitigate the stress response so that, biologically speaking, your body is not aging from stress. I can tell you that eating X, Y, and Z foods will help ease inflammation and improve your overall health, and walking 10,000 steps a day will reverse some of the destructive processes that are going on in your body. But easing stress is not like curing appendicitis. No single prescription works for everybody. And unfortunately, there is no 400-milligram dose of Thai massage that will automatically help all people manage their stressors better. Instead, you have to figure out which prescription works best for you. Many choices work, with one or more of the following working for almost everyone. 

1. Identify and monitor
though some sources of stress are easy to identify, it can be difficult to determine what is truly bothering you. Lashing out at your kids may be a reaction not to what your kids did but to an extra assignment piled on at work. The first step to managing your stress is to pinpoint the culprit. Sharecare has developed an app (that some of us at the Cleveland Clinic are testing) for this called Living in the Green—available now for Robb Report readers in a beta version on Android phones (iPhone version soon to come). Your voice patterns for conversations reflect your stress levels. Your muscles, in particular your vocal cords, tighten up oh-so slightly when you experience stress. So your stress level can be measured by variations in the tone and pitch (fractals) of your speech. Those fractal levels in your phone conversations, and even your choice of words in your written messages, texts, tweets, and e-mails are analyzed by the app. You can learn how each and every event affects you. 

By monitoring your stress levels and learning how to modulate them, you can “live in the green” with calls and conversations and after events that previously would have caused much stress to you and much aging to your body and brain. 

2. Intense physical activity
Walk 30 minutes, stretch, do yoga—just get up and move! Exercise, simply, is one of life’s greatest stress relievers.

3. Do the opposite
Every emotion has an urge to act that goes with it. When we feel afraid or anxious, we avoid things; when we are depressed or sad, we withdraw (stay in bed). When we are angry, we want to lash out or yell. Unfortunately, each of these mood-inspired behaviors actually increases the accompanying emotion rather than decreasing it. However, if you can act the opposite way, you can dial down the emotion. Angry at someone? Rather than lash out, be empathetic. Depressed? Instead of shutting yourself in, go out. Rather than letting emotions determine what you do, take control and choose how you feel. 

4. Use guided imagery
Go to a quiet place, relax, and breathe deeply, then visualize yourself in different scenarios. Some variations include imagining yourself in a pleasant place (the beach), fighting disease (seeing your good immune cells fighting off bad germs), and practicing for a big performance (doing well in your job). Here is an example of how this type of guided imagery can cure your aches and pains: Visualize the spot of pain. Follow the nerve from that spot to the center of your mind. Ask your body if you can take control of that pain, and visualize the way that would happen.  

5. Progressively relax
Focus on your muscles. by tensing and relaxing each muscle, you can help relieve some of your stored physical stress. While sitting or lying down, tense the muscles of your feet as much as you can and then release the tension. Tense and relax different muscle groups of your body one at a time. Focus on your legs, stomach, back, neck, arms, face, and head. When done, relax for a few minutes.

Get the Living in the Green stress app First *

    ■    Download the app from this URL using a Google Play username and password.
    ■    Follow the instructions to create a Sharecare account, or log in with your existing account.
    ■    When prompted, enter the activation code: sharecare2015.
Make calls as you normally do. The app will provide a short description of your mind-set during the call, and a graphic will show your intensity and sources of stress.

*The app is still in development, so this is a beta version and currently available to Android users only and may be titled Sharecare instead of Living in the Green.

Michael F. Roizen, MD is the chief wellness officer and chair at the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. He is the author of RealAge and a coauthor of the You series of books, a corecipient of the 2011 Paul G. Rogers Health Communications Award from the National Library of Medicine, and a member of the Robb Report Health & Wellness editorial board. 

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