Friday, May 22, 2015

Under Pressure: The Science of Stress & What You Can Do

by Gabi Pinto-Coelho

Stress: it’s everywhere. 

While we usually associate it with our lives at work, there is no guarantee that its gray cloud will dissipate once you get back home. We have dinners to make, kids (and maybe even parents) to take care of, homes to clean, errands to run, the list goes on. In our fast-paced culture, it seems like stress is inescapable.

We all know that stress is harmful to our health. Sometimes, we can literally feel its effects in the form of tense shoulders, a headache, or that overwhelming desire to hit the pillow the moment we are able. But what many people don’t know is how exactly stress affects us on a biological and neurological level. Stress has the rather unwelcome ability to change our brain activity and even the function of our cells.

Research has shown that stress is a risk factor for the development of addictions and vulnerability to relapse. Exposure to stressors, especially for a prolonged period of time, leads to an inability to control impulses. Unsurprisingly, this increases the risk to use, and ultimately, abuse substances of any kind.

New research has linked chronic stress to the shortening of telomeres, which are like disposable caps at the ends of your chromosomes. Telomeres protect your genetic material from deterioration. So, what’s the big deal? Over time, your telomeres will naturally shorten as your cells replicate. This process of gradual telomere shortening is a normal, expected part of aging. However, research has shown that exposure to chronic stress will accelerate the telomere aging process. Have you ever noticed how people who are very stressed look a little ragged, tired, and older than they really are? Scientists suspect that part of this has to do with our shrinking telomeres. This accelerated telomere shortening also puts us at risk for age-related and chronic health conditions.

The good news is that scientists have researched lifestyle factors effective for protecting yourself against the effects of stress on your life and your telomeres. Most of these lifestyle factors are not surprising, and are always a part of a healthy lifestyle. 

These more obvious factors include: not smoking, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. Perhaps the most interesting of proven protective measures is meditation. While it is well-known that meditation and other mindfulness practices are useful for reducing stress in general, recent research has demonstrated a connection between meditation and a slowing of the erosion of telomeres. For those struggling with addiction, meditation has proven time and again to be a helpful tool to manage cravings and avoid relapse.

Stress affects almost everyone, but those suffering with addiction are especially vulnerable to its effects, on both an emotional and a biological level. That means that living a healthy lifestyle is vital to the well-being of anyone recovering from substance abuse. 

We hear it all the time but it is worth repeating: take time to take care of yourself. Not only will you feel better, but you just might lengthen your telomeres, reduce your chances of relapse, and prolong your life.

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