Stress is an emotion that we all experience. It’s the phenomenon that activates our fight or flight response to save us from danger. This was very useful before the development of technologically advanced societies, when humans had to hunt and gather to eat. If you saw a snake slithering in the brush by your feet, you’d want to have a mechanism to speed up your heart rate and tense your muscles for action, while slowing down other body functions like digestion that are unnecessary for fleeing from a hazardous situation. However, nowadays humans hardly ever encounter snakes in the wild, and an activated fight or flight response when you’re about to give a presentation seems like more of a burden than a help. Still, stress might not be good or bad, but simply an adaptation. For access to tools to deal with all of life’s stressors download the LIFE Intelligence app, one app to monitor and improve your self, career, and relationships.
Chronic stress means repeated exposure to the same stressor over several weeks. It can cause immune system suppression, sleep problems, increase likelihood of anxiety and depression, and lead to weight gain, among many other symptoms (McEwen, 2017). What is less known is that people who are exposed to chronic stress have shown signs of accelerated aging (Epel et al., 2004), meaning that people are actually getting older faster due to chronic stress.
The mechanism behind aging due to chronic stress may be a phenomenon called oxidative damage. Oxidative damage is damage to cells caused by an imbalance of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants (Aschbacher et al., 2014). These molecules usually stabilize each other in our cells, but when there’s an imbalance and more ROS’s than antioxidants, the ROS’s start damaging important cell components like DNA and proteins. Previous studies have linked oxidative damage to the negative effects of aging like physical and cognitive decline (Harman, 1956) as well as age-related diseases (Monnier et al., 2006).
One study aimed to figure out if oxidative damage is the reason chronic stress leads to rapid aging. Aschbacher et al. (2014) recruited 48 post-menopausal women, 25 of whom were caregivers of a relative with dementia and under chronic stress, and 23 were age-matched controls of women with healthy spouses. The mean age of participants was 63 years. These women were given questionnaires to assess perceptions of stress from the past month and to look at the effects of moderate levels of stress. After these questionnaires, the participants completed a task that was meant to provoke stress responses. Participants had to discuss their strengths and weaknesses and complete a math task in front of an audience. Their saliva was tested multiple times during the task to measure cortisol levels. The hormone cortisol was chosen to be measured in this study because previous studies found that stressful events may induce increased cortisol, and those who are exposed to chronic stress are more likely to have negative health effects from lots of cortisol excretion (Kirschbaum et al., 1995). Oxidative damage was tested by drawing the participants’ blood and analyzing it (Aschbacher et al., 2014).
The women who were caregivers reported significantly higher levels of stress, had greater anticipatory cortisol reactivity, and had higher levels of oxidative damage compared to the controls. It’s interesting that cortisol levels were higher in people with chronic stress when anticipating the stress, and were not significantly different during the stressful event itself. Chronic stress may change the brain of individuals to make some neurons more excitable during stress, causing these people to have greater anticipatory stress and a stronger cortisol response before the event happens (Miklós et al., 2012). Therefore, from these results, it may be that the feeling of anticipating stress is where the bad stress comes from that causes aging and oxidative damage.
In addition, Aschbacher et al. (2014) found that out of the women in the control group who had overall lower stress levels, women who had greater cortisol reactivity during the task actually had lower oxidative damage. So, a moderate amount of stress was beneficial to the health of these individuals, and made them supposedly age slower than other women who had lower stress. The phenomenon of moderate, beneficial stress is known as “eustress.” Eustress is a relatively new subject of scientific inquiry, so research is still emerging. In the research so far, eustress has been positively associated with success in sports and work, and scientists have begun proposals on how to promote eustress in education (Rudland et al., 2019).
Since chronic stress actually changes the brain by making particular neurons more excitable (Miklós et al., 2012), scientists have begun to see stress in a new light. Stress might not be a failure of the biological system, but instead is an adaptation to help the individual deal with a challenging environment and focus on surviving the event. Our bodies and brains adapt to our situations, which isn’t inherently good or bad. So, should we even have the categories of good and bad stress? Some researchers believe that there shouldn’t be defined terms of eustress and distress (aka positive and negative stress), because stress is an adaptation reaction of the body and is neither good nor bad (Bienertova-Vasku et al., 2020).
Even though technically stress is an adaptation and is not inherently good or bad, a lot of us become inhibited by the negative feelings of stress when our energy would be better focused on turning stress into action. The LIFE Intelligence self-care app’s 9 step Mission program guides you through mental health, self-awareness, goal setting, regret and time management, decision making, stress management, relationships, conflict resolution, and leadership. Mission 6 is about stress, social, and holistic health. The first section called Mission 6.1 covers the body-brain connection, and helps us understand why our brain leads to the physical sensation of stress as well as tools to manage unhealthy stress. In addition, the LIFE app has a feature to log your moods during the day, and then manage them with helpful information and strategies. Currently, the app does not have the mood “stressed” added, but I propose that we insert it in the fear category. Until then, the information and activities attached to the mood “overwhelmed” will be helpful to anyone experiencing the negative effects of stress. Check out this mission, mood wheel, and more and start LIFE free today.
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