I don’t mean to stress you out, but according to a growing number of scientific reports, stress makes us age more quickly. Research suggests that from our skin to our hearts, brains, and even cells, the more we stress, the older we get. The question, “Do we age because of stress or is getting older stressful?” leaves us with yet another chicken and egg scenario.
We’re a nation that is collectively losing its mind over the whole stress issue. We’re told that it’s a natural response, an evolutionary act of survival to fight or flee from harm. We’re also told that this response itself can kill us. One side says that we have to control life events in order to reduce stress, while the other states that we only need to control how we think about stress to reduce its damaging effects.
According to the American Psychological Association’s yearly Stress in America survey, people of all ages experience stress and report that it’s having a negative effect on their life satisfaction. This has given rise to a stress reduction market that has produced myriad products, practices and potions designed to tame the stress beast. Despite strong anti-stress and anti-aging marketing, not only are we still getting old, we’re still stressing out.
I’ve spent a large amount of time over the last several years thinking, writing, and talking about stress. I have even given myself the title of “stress therapist” to replace my old title of “stressed-out therapist.” I had an epiphany on my way to give a talk titled “Stress for Success.”
During talks on stress, I often ask a rhetorical question: Why do sane, rational, and mostly intelligent people continue to have stress reactions when they know the reaction will have no impact on the situation? Then it struck me: Many of us deal with stress by stressing out.
This insight helps me understand why most people, when asked about their stress coping skills, answer with a blank stare. They think stress is a coping skill.
I came up with a list of ideas people have suggested to support this notion:
- Worrying about something bad happening can actually keep the bad thing from happening.
- Expecting things to go bad makes it hurt less when it actually happens.
- Fighting against what is already happening makes us stronger.
- Thinking that we’re right and the situation is wrong makes us morally superior to whatever is happening.
- Resistance keeps us from getting pushed around by life.
- If I accept what is, nothing will ever change.
- Stress energy is the only thing that gets me through my day.
Once I understood that stress is being used as a stress coping mechanism, I realized that getting people to stop stressing was asking them to give up hope for a sane life. My new therapeutic technique is to help people get better at stress. In psychotherapy circles, this is known as prescribing the symptom. It’s a paradoxical technique that works because taking conscious control over something that seems to beyond our control immediately brings a sense of relief.
The next time you find yourself swimming in a sea of stress, here are some tried-and-true techniques to ward of seasickness:
- Realize that the sensations of stress are a call to attention.
Your mind’s radar has picked up an incoming signal. It’s your job to discern if it poses an actual threat.
- Stop trying not to have a stress response.
This only prolongs the experience. The effort to stop the process keeps you focused on it.
- Put a timer on it.
Even the stress doomsayers say prolonged stress is harmful. Give yourself permission to have a 15-minute meltdown and expel the pent-up energy. (Avoid doing this in public places, around expensive household items, or at work.)
- Own it.
Take responsibility for creating the reaction to an event that, minus your interpretation of it, is neither good nor bad.
- Name it, don’t blame it.
Simply call it like you see it without getting down on yourself for stressing out. In the end, it’s your conditioning that causes the response, not some twisted psychology that makes you want to punish yourself.
It would be nice to think that we grow out of being stressed. There does, in fact, seem to be some evidence that our “this is going to be bad” meter operates at a different level after a certain age. When we take a hard look at the “aging is stressful” campaigners, we find that they have a lot in common with the “younger is better” crowd. I have created a slogan for these folks: Stress doesn’t make us old, aging does.
Senior man gardening photo available from Shutterstock