If you've been looking for the fountain of youth, you won't find it in a chill pill or cosmetic surgery. It's contained in your thoughts. The stress you’re under could be making you old before your time. A frazzled lifestyle combined with your perception of stress and your unique way of dealing with it can create cellular changes in the body that cause you to age prematurely.
The wear and tear of stress and the way you deal with it make your mind and body older or younger than you actually are. You can see evidence of how the body bears the burden of stress when you look in the mirror and see frown lines or worry lines. The deep furrows between the eyebrows or horizontal lines straight across your forehead develop with movements of the muscles in your face. They’re called worry lines for a reason—a sign that bottled-up stress manifests in your body.
What Neuroscientists Reveal
Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel have researched the relationship between destructive thoughts and your telomeres—the protective tips that reside at the end of chromosomes, monitoring how much you eat, sleep, and exercise. In their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier and Longer, Blackburn and Epel explain that telomeres determine how fast cells ages and the impact it has on your life and health. When telomeres become too short, they stop dividing, and cells grow old.
In addition to shortening, however, Blackburn and Epel discovered that telomeres also lengthen, which slows down the aging process. Some of the factors that determine the aging of the telomeres and prevent premature aging at the cellular level are a healthy diet, genetics, how you respond to stress, ample sleep, and regular exercise. But in addition to these factors, the researchers identified five thought patterns that may lead to shorter telomeres, premature aging, and a truncated life span.
1. “Cynical hostility”—seething anger or frequent thoughts that other people can’t be trusted. People with high cynical hostility—who think that others are out to get them—tend to have shorter telomeres and are more prone to cardiovascular disease, metabolic illness, and death at earlier ages.
2. Pessimism—the tendency to look at the negative side of life—is associated with shorter telomeres. This fits with a longstanding body of research showing pessimists die earlier than optimists and fail to climb the career ladder as far and fast than their optimistic cohorts.
3. Rumination—rehashing worries over and over in your mind. If you ruminate, stress hangs around in your body long after the reason for it is over in the form of elevated heart rate, prolonged high blood pressure, and increased levels of cortisol. In the laboratory, the scientists discovered that people who ruminate have more depression and anxiety that are associated with shorter telomeres and advanced aging.
4. Thought Suppression—the tendency to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings. The avoidance or suppression of negative thoughts and feelings is linked to shorter telomeres.
5. Mind Straying. A Harvard study reported that the human mind strays 47 percent of the time. As your mind strays, you’re more stressed out and unhappy than if you stay in the here and now, for example, when you’re worried about unpaid bills or an unfinished project. The Harvard scientists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found you're more likely to be happier—no matter what you’re doing even working overtime, vacuuming the house, or sitting in traffic—if you're focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else or wishing you had done something differently such as what you ate for lunch and what you “should” have eaten.
Calculate Your Stress Age
You know your birthday, but do you know your stress age? Take the following quiz to get a thumbnail sketch of your stress age. Answer yes or no to the following questions then see what you can do about it.
___1. Are you usually calm when you’re not in control of a situation?
___2. Do you tend to be more positive than negative when you make a mistake?
___3. Are you able to acknowledge and accept negative thoughts and feelings?
___4. Do you live mostly in the present rather than worrying about the future?
___5. Are you mostly optimistic about the future?
___6. Can you keep your mind focused on what you’re doing in the present moment?
___7. Do you usually pay attention to your unwanted worries and anxieties?
___8. Do you rarely catch your mind straying?
___9. Do you believe for the most part that you can trust other people?
___10. Do you usually stay calm, cool, and collected after things don’t go your way?
___11. Is it difficult to see the opportunity in a difficult situation?
___12. Do you often replay past regrets over and over in your mind?
___13. Is it hard to focus on a task?
___14. Do you often wish you were somewhere else when engaged in a task?
___15. Do you worry a lot while driving, falling asleep, or talking to others?
___16. Do you try to forcefully push unpleasant thoughts and feelings away?
___17. Do you usually have a short fuse when people don’t meet your standards?
___18. Do you believe that whatever can go wrong will go wrong?
___19. Do you believe that other people can’t be trusted?
___20. Do you avoid or put off thinking about negative thoughts or worries?
Your stress age gives you a thumbnail sketch of how stress and the cortisol juices you stew in could be affecting your health even taking years off your life. To calculate your stress age, start with your actual age. Then for questions 1 through 10, subtract a year for each yes answer and add a year for each no answer. For questions 11 through 20, subtract a year for each no answer and add a year for each yes answer. The result is your stress age.*
Change Your Thoughts, Reduce Your Stress
After scoring the test, if you find that stress may be making you older than you are, you don’t have to retire to your bed and pull the covers over your head. You can do your part to foster healthy cell renewal to slow the aging process and enjoy a long, productive life.
In addition to beefing up a healthy lifestyle (your exercise regimen, getting ample sleep, and eating healthy foods), researchers explain that mindfulness or thought awareness promotes stress resilience. You can follow the advice of neuroscientists by paying attention to five ways you use your mind and add back years to your life. Thought awareness determines how much stress you have and may make a difference in how much stress ages you or truncates your longevity:
1. Learn to watch and regulate your anger and hostility. Ask yourself if you’re attributing false motives or jumping to conclusions about the intentions of others. Start paying attention to how often you vilify people, over-personalize situations, or make yourself a victim of circumstance, reacting to situations that might simply be random events.
2. When you cultivate a more optimistic outlook, you promote stress resilience. Look at the upside of a situation or the opportunity in the difficulty.
3. Keeping your focus on the present instead of ruminating about what has already happened (in the past) or about what might happen (in the future) keeps stress levels down, makes you more effective at tasks, and makes for a happier life.
4. Instead of avoiding negative or unpleasant thoughts, pay attention without reacting to them through mindfulness meditation and bring your mind into the present moment. You can take a dispassionate, bird’s-eye view, watching unpleasant thoughts with curiosity, much as you might observe a blemish on your hand, and the negative thoughts usually relax.
5. When you keep your awareness in the moment, your presence of mind keeps you de-stressed and fully immersed in what you’re doing. You’re able to think mindfully and productively in an alert, active, and calm manner. A present-centered mind can contribute to a full, happy life.
*This quiz is only a thumbnail sketch to identify certain thought patterns that can increase your stress level. It isn’t clinically precise or intended to scientifically measure the length of your telomeres.