When I ask women “How are you?”, so many of them answer “So stressed!” I hear it from friends, from patients, even from casual acquaintances making small talk. Stress is ever present in our modern lives. Sometimes it’s almost worn like a badge of honor – one person says they’re stressed and the other tries to outdo them with their own stress stories. But being chronically stressed is nothing to be proud of – and it just might be making you age faster than you think.
Do you know that stress and aging have a complex relationship? Women have long heard that stress can make you look older, but a growing body of research exhibits a more serious issue: stress can actually make you older on a cellular level! That’s right, stress can have an impact on your DNA.
And that’s not all. Stress can change your brain too, accelerating cognitive decline. Stress can cause chronic inflammation and immune system dysfunction, meaning people are dealing with chronic pain and disease earlier and earlier. That’s a lot of reasons to pay attention to stress!
Before you can do anything to combat the link between stress and aging, you have to understand just what qualifies as stress, and how it can impact your body.
What is Stress?
We all deal with stressors on a daily basis. Your boss may ask you to meet a nearly impossible deadline; your car breaks down; your children need rides to four different activities in a three hour time frame; your checking account hovers precariously near $0. As difficult as these things are at the moment, they usually pass quickly. But there’s a more dangerous kind of stress, the kind that lingers indefinitely. This is the type that causes cellular damage and premature aging.
Emotional stress is something people don’t always talk about, but we should. This is the kind of biological stress that lies hidden in your body, leaving you on high alert far more often than you should be. Even when daily life is passing rather smoothly, if you haven’t addressed emotional upsets from your past, they are likely to be causing internal stress without you even knowing it.
How are Stress and Aging Linked on a Cellular Level?
I asked a friend, Melissa, how she was the other day. Like many women, her first response was “Stressed!” She then began telling me all the ways she was feeling stress — crazy job demands, caring for her children, helping her aging mother move, helping care for her father’s home, and managing her own finances along with her mother’s. As she kept talking, I realized there was probably a lot more contributing to her stress than she even realized. She was holding on to a lot of stories from her past and expectations that she would take on giving her parents whatever support they needed, regardless of what else was happening in her life. She was always the one to “do what needs to be done,” she said – but she simply wasn’t sure how she could this time.
We all have these stories and events from our past that linger deep inside – especially when they go unacknowledged for years. You may think that the role of family caregiver or the idea that you could never please your parents wouldn’t impact you any longer once you become an adult — but it does.
And trauma from your past can also have a huge impact on your present health. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study has shown a strong relationship between childhood stress, including abuse and neglect, parental substance abuse, divorce, and other factors, with higher risk for health problems later in life, as well as earlier death. Are you starting to see the connections between stress and aging?
The Stress is Killing You (Literally)
Though you may have said the words “this stress is killing me,” you likely didn’t think it was actually doing so. But a growing body of research is showing that stress just might be actually taking years off your life. One study found that the chronic stress of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease could shorten a life span by four to eight years. Another showed similar results for mothers caring for chronically ill children.
And caring for someone who is chronically ill isn’t the only stress factor that has been shown to have an effect on aging. Multiple types of chronic stress – including job stress and even just the anticipation of stress to come has shown an impact at the cellular level.
Even if the effects of stress aren’t as severe as a shortened life span, there’s a lot of health issues that come with chronic stress. And people under constant stress are facing these problems at younger and younger ages. Let’s look more closely at some of these signs of stress and aging prematurely.
Stress and Aging: How Stress Affects Premature Aging – Inside and Out
Some of the signs that you are aging too soon are easy to see. If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered who the old woman staring back at you was, you know what I’m talking about. Other indications that you are aging prematurely can’t be seen — but I’m willing to bet you feel them! Here’s a quick look at some things you should know about how stress and aging are connected.
Has anyone ever told you “You look stressed!” If so, you probably didn’t take it as a compliment. When people say this, they might as well be saying “you look old.”
Chronic stress shows on your face in so many different ways: wrinkles, dry and dull skin, dark circles or bags under your eyes, rashes, adult acne, even increased jaw size due to grinding teeth or clenching your jaw.
Hair loss is another external sign of stress. I know a woman who, in her mid-forties, was under so much stress that she developed alopecia, and ended up losing 90% of her hair. Hair loss due to stress isn’t usually permanent. But for many women, it can be yet another source of stress, which is the last thing they need.
Vision and Hearing
We expect changes to our vision and hearing as we age, but stress can make these changes happen far earlier than anticipated.
Vision problems including dry eyes, eye twitching, blurry vision, eye floaters, and even temporary loss of vision can result from excess stress. Your pupils will dilate when you are anxious, allowing more light in — great if you need to see the danger ahead, but not so useful on an everyday basis. Chronically dilated pupils can cause sensitivity to light, putting a great deal of strain on your eyes. The longer the stress is present, the harder it is for your eyes to recover.
Hearing is also seriously impacted by chronic stress. Your body may increase earwax production as your sweat glands are stimulated. Stress can also change the way your mind perceives sounds. You may find yourself unable to focus on sounds, noticing background sounds more intensely, experiencing tinnitus (ringing in your ears) more frequently, or even (rarely) having auditory hallucinations.
As I said before, studies have shown that stress can actually change your genes. Telomeres are the caps at the end of a cell’s chromosomes. As a cell divides over time, these telomeres shorten. The enzyme telomerase typically works to repair this damage. As part of the natural aging process, telomeres shorten and enzyme activity that repairs cell damage decreases. What the research is showing is that people undergoing chronic stress have shorter telomeres than those who are not. That means there’s a close link between stress and aging: the more stress you have, the older (biologically) your cells are!
Stress can cause overproduction of the hormone cortisol – and a buildup in cortisol in your brain can change the way your brain is able to function. Chronic stress can shrink your prefrontal cortex, impacting memory and learning. At the same time, it can increase the size of your amygdala, making your brain more receptive to stress.
Studies have also shown that chronic stress may also contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Tips on Stress and Aging: How to Fight Getting Old Too Soon
All of this information highlights why it’s crucial for women to practice self-care and eliminate stress whenever possible. You won’t be able to get rid of stress factors entirely, especially the short term situations that crop up. You also can’t change what happened in the past – but you can address it, change how you react to old stressors, and alter your stress response. And if you’re a caregiver for others, remember that you can’t help someone else if you’re you aren’t helping yourself. You don’t have to let yourself get old before your time — try these tips to reduce stress and reclaim your youthful glow!
- Don’t be a “superhero.” Nobody can do everything. You have to learn to say no.
- Let go of being perfect. If you find yourself obsessing about cleaning your house, setting the perfect dinner table, or making sure your guest towels are just so, take a step back and ask how much these things really matter. Isn’t your peace of mind more important?
- Take time for you! So many women think they have to meet everyone else’s needs before it’s their turn. But when you don’t allow yourself the time you need for basic necessities like eating and sleeping, you’ll burn out way too soon.
- Unplug. Our lives are ruled by technology; we think we have to respond immediately to every communication received. Technology should be used for your convenience, not the whims of others! Designate “quiet time” for yourself each day, and let others know you’ll respond when it works for you.
- Pay attention to time management. Add up the hours you spend on mindless activities — are you checking email fifteen times per day, for example? Set aside specific times for tasks, which will allow you to give your full attention to the things you are doing. Group errands together so you aren’t constantly on the run.
- Eat right and exercise. When your body is faced with stress, making sure you get enough of the right nutrients is even more important! Cut back on sugar, simple carbohydrates, and alcohol. Eat plenty of protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. Make sure you keep yourself moving too. Even if you don’t have time for long exercise sessions, short bursts of exercise are quite effective for stress reduction.
- Try meditation, breathing exercises, visualization or other relaxation techniques to help your body release pent up stress. If none of those activities work for you, keep looking until you find something you love! What makes you happy? What makes you laugh? For me, it’s dancing. Other people love hot yoga or zumba. One woman I know releases stress by going to a friend’s farm to snuggle baby goats. What is it that speaks to you?
- Surround yourself with people you love. Don’t try to face all the pressures of life on your own — ask for help!
Don’t Let Time Pass You By!
Stress and aging are both inevitable – but they don’t have to come together too soon! Stress is everywhere, but you don’t have to let it rule your life. Step back and examine where stress is coming from, then take steps to address it before it robs you of your youth and vitality. When you learn how to effectively manage stress you can live life to its fullest — for as long as possible!