There’s a lot of research about how chronic stress is bad for our hearts, brains and emotional health, contributes to obesity, and even shortens our lives because it accelerates the aging process.
The physiological response to stress goes like this: When confronted with danger (like when our forebears encountered a wooly mammoth), our bodies flood with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that elevate our heart rate, increase our blood pressure and boost our energy, prepping us for “fight or flight.”
While we’re unlikely to be attacked by a wooly mammoth today, we do face challenges—like caring for elderly parents, a sucky job or the ascension of an unqualified President to the throne—that can make our bodies react the same way. And when this natural alarm system gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, it takes its toll.
You’re likely aware of how stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and spending time in nature can help. But here’s some other information about dealing with stress you may have missed:
Wives become less stressed when their husbands die
This may not come as a surprise to some women, but a University of Padova study published last year found that while men suffer negative health consequences when their wife dies—because they rely more heavily on their spouse—widows appear to get healthier, suffering less stress and frailty than women whose husbands are still alive. I don’t recommend offing one’s husband as a stress management technique, but hey, if he goes first, there is this potential upside (especially since women generally live longer than men).
Too-intense exercise increases stress hormone production
Studies have shown that moderate- to high-intensity exercise triggers increases in cortisol levels in the blood, while low-intensity exercise actually reduces circulating cortisol levels. Slackers can now reframe their aversion to exertion as a stress management technique.
Stress doesn’t always cause aggressive behavior in men
In the late 1990s, some scientists began to argue that women show a more nurturing “tend-and-befriend” reaction to stress, while men were assumed to still take the fight-or-flight approach and become aggressive when stressed. German researchers have now refuted this long-held doctrine, demonstrating that male subjects under stress showed significantly more positive social behavior than control subjects who weren’t in a stressful situation. Granted, the stressful situation the researchers created related to public speaking. I’d wager the same guys might be a bit less “positive” if faced with a wooly mammoth.
“Goldilocks” stress is the ideal
Too little stress can lead to boredom and depression (see next item, below), and too much can cause anxiety and health problems. But the just-right amount of acute stress tunes up the brain and improves performance and health, according to researchers at UC Berkeley. In studies on rats, they found significant but brief stressful events caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to grow into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rodents’ mental performance. So, like Goldilocks, we need to find that stress sweet spot to keep our brains alert. Would a rollercoaster ride or having a fender bender every couple of weeks work?
Retirement stress: It’s a thing
Is your hubs looking forward to kicking back in retirement? He should think again. According to an article in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, doing too little can be bad for his health once he stops working. Men need activities that structure their time and are meaningful to them, so they’re advised to take hobbies and interests to a more challenging level, volunteer, and learn new skills to stay mentally and socially engaged (not to mention prevent their spouses from going crazy, which is also important for men’s well-being).
Watching cat videos lowers stress
Watching cat videos is one of the most popular uses of the internet today. So a study published in Computers in Human Behavior that found this activity can boost energy levels and increase feelings of happiness isn’t just fluff. Limitations noted in the study, however, were that the sample consisted mainly of women and those with an affinity for cats. One of the researchers also noted that while cat videos may be helpful for people who like cats, those predisposed to, say, porcupines might get more of a kick out of watching porcupine videos. Ah, science.
Laughter remains one of the best stress relievers
A good laugh has both short- and long-term benefits when it comes to stress. In the here and now, a hearty laugh ignites then cools down your stress response, producing a nice, relaxed feeling. It also can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress. Longer term, it can boost your immune system by introducing positive thoughts that release neuropeptides that help fight stress.
A recent study at Loma Linda University had a group of healthy adults in their 60s and 70s watch funny videos while another group sat quietly without talking, reading or using their cellphones. After 20 minutes, participants gave saliva samples and took a short memory test. While both groups performed better after the break than before, those who viewed the funny videos performed more than twice as well in memory recall. And the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol.
The only hormones
I want less of at this age
are those stress hormones.
So chuckle up, fellow boomers (and folks of every age, for that matter). Gawd knows we need to find something to laugh about for the next four years.
Your thoughts? How do you handle stress? Have you found it easier to not let things bother you as you’ve gotten older? Please share…