If you have ever felt like you are sleepwalking through life, you may have come to accept that stress and anxiety are just everyday parts of your life. Your emotions spike as soon as you roll over to check your email and social media, and you haven’t even picked your head up off the pillow. Your drive to work is a grind of stop-and-go of traffic and rude drivers. At work, you constantly feel under threat, whether from the pressure of the job itself or the way your boss and coworkers behave. And then you get home tired and have chores to do and dinner to cook and children to drive to piano practice.
Most of us rarely experience true relaxation (outside of vacation, that is). Yet, this state–being relaxed, creative, intuitive, vibrant, intelligent–should be our brain’s normal default state. It’s how we’re supposed to be.
When we’re stressed, our brain can’t function optimally, and when stress becomes chronic, it can decrease brain health and accelerate cellular aging. In fact, reducing the amount of stress in our lives is so critical to brain health that I’ve devoted a whole section in Dr. A’s Habits of Health to the topic (starting on page 525). We go in-depth into the biology of stress and give you practical techniques for transforming your health response, but for this post, let’s cover the basics of stress and how it affects your longevity.
The Missing Physical Response
10,000 years ago, our fight-or-flight response protected us, but now it works against us. For our ancestors, stress was almost always induced by physical danger, and those dangers demanded a physical response. See a predator? The brain shoots out emergency chemicals that help you evade danger and stay alive.
But today, our stress response can be activated several times a day, but it’s almost always in response to mental threats that don’t elicit a physical response, like running or fighting. Instead, we internalize the stress, bathing our brain and heart with damaging substances that create systemic inflammation. Even more strange, the jolt of energy that comes with stress can actually be addictive.
Over time, ongoing stress reduces the neurotransmitters in the frontal lobe of our neocortex, where most of our abstract thinking occurs, and pulls critical chemicals away from our limbic system, which controls emotions. That can lead to anxiety, poor work performance, depression, and feelings of helplessness and lack of meaning.
Ways to Beat Stress
You may not need to run from a saber-toothed tiger, but you can still use exercise to prevent excess stress chemicals from just sitting there in your brain. Exercise is a wonderfully effective way to dispose of these stress chemicals in just the way your body was designed to. All kinds of exercises are effective for this, but exercises that mimic aggression (such as kicks, lifts, or thrusts), are especially therapeutic.
But that’s just the start and just one tool in your arsenal.
You should also start to practice relaxation meditation (and there’s a guide for that in Dr. A’s Habits of Health, page 526), consider asking for help such as from a professional or simply by leaning on mentors, and start to explore ways to remove stress triggers from your life completely. For example, if a long commute and a mean boss is a constant problem, you might consider a career change. As challenging as that sounds, making that shift could radically improve your life and potentially impact your longevity.
Like all Habits of Health, reducing stress takes practice. You won’t read this blog post and flip a switch that clears away the sandbags of anxiety that weigh you down, but it can help you become more aware, and that’s a powerful first step toward lasting change.