How Stress Ages You (and What to Do About It)

Dr. Janet Zand

September 11, 2020

 

 
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We’re feeling record levels of stress right now.

Stress about our health, uncertainty about the future, separation from loved ones, news headlines, and more.

And as you probably know, all of this stress isn’t good for you! Not only does it take a toll on your health, but stress can actually make you age you faster, too.

Maybe you’ve seen this for yourself when a friend went through a particularly stressful life event and suddenly looked 5-10 years older.

Well, there’s a reason they look older: stress has aged them on a cellular level.

How? Well, to explain how it works, first I need to tell you a little bit about what happens to your body when you’re stressed.

How stress ages you

The amygdala is the fear center of your brain. When you feel afraid, the amygdala pumps out stress hormones, like cortisol. Now sometimes, this is a good thing. It’s what helped us run from saber-toothed tigers. And once we escaped from the tiger (hopefully!), our cortisol levels dropped.

Of course nowadays, we’re not running from saber-toothed tigers. We have modern-day stresses like worries or frustrations about our jobs, health, and things we read about in the news.

But to our brain, stress is stress. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pandemic or a saber-toothed tiger. So the amygdala responds by pumping out stress hormones. To make matters worse, these modern-day stressors can persist for weeks, months, or even years.

So this non-stop stress shifts your amygdala into overdrive, and it continually pumps out cortisol. As you may know, too much cortisol in your system is terrible for your health. It can:

• Raise your blood pressure
• Make you gain weight
• Make it harder to fight off viruses and bacterial infections
• ...and more.

Too much cortisol in your system also skyrockets your blood sugar level. And for those of us who want to look and feel young, this is a big deal. Here’s why:

The extra sugar in your blood will bind to proteins and lipids (fats) through a destructive process called glycation. And glycation breaks down the collagen and elastin in your skin. Once your collagen and elastin break down, your tight and resilient skin begins to get saggy and wrinkly.

So that’s why people who feel stressed age faster, too.

But here’s the good news: there’s a group of people who are seeing the opposite results. They actually look far younger than other people their age, just by adopting a simple daily habit.

Their secret

So what is this habit?

Meditation.

Now, you’ve probably heard about the health benefits of mediation before. But what a lot of people haven’t heard about is how mediation can make you look younger.

And the reason it makes you look younger comes back to cortisol. See, researchers found that when people meditate, their cortisol levels drop by 50% or more!

So when you meditate, you clear out the cortisol and prevent the glycation that speeds up the aging process.

But researchers have found something even more remarkable about meditation...

Not only does it clear out cortisol, but it actually alters your amygdala!

Harvard researchers took a group of people and gave them a simple brain scan. Then the participants took a meditation program where they meditated for an average of 30 minutes per day.

After just 8 weeks, the researchers did another brain scan. And what they found was incredible: the participants’ amygdalas — their fear centers — actually shrank!

This is really exciting news for those of us who want to age gracefully. It means that meditation can effectively reshape our brain to sidestep the aging effects of stress.

It’s the ultimate anti-aging habit, keeping you young inside and out.

But if you’re not meditating right now, where do you start?

How to get started

Meditation can be downright intimidating, especially with so many types of meditation to choose from. So here are some steps you can use to start a meditation practice:

1. Start slow. Commit to a short daily practice, like 15 minutes a day. Does 15 minutes sound too long? Start with just 5 minutes. Build the habit slowly so it’ll actually stick!

2. Schedule the time. Schedule your meditation into your day, just like you’d schedule a meeting or a workout. Creating a dedicated time for meditation will make it far more likely that you’ll actually do it.

3. Put your phone on airplane mode. Try to eliminate distractions and interruptions so you can dedicate the time to your practice.

4. Be patient and don't judge yourself. Don't try to stop thinking — it’ll only make you think more! Instead, just focus on your breath. When a thought arises, notice it, and gently bring yourself back to your breath.

5. Try a meditation app. A meditation app takes some of the thinking out of it, making it easier to start mediation. You can find a mediation app in your app store, or try one of the popular ones like Calm, Headspace, or Ten Percent Happier.

If you’ve ever thought about starting a meditation practice “one day,” I’d argue that this is the perfect time. Not only will it help you look younger, but you’ll reduce your stress and give your health a boost, too.

Now, what if you really, really don’t want to try meditating?

Well, if meditation just isn’t appealing to you, find an activity that can still help you manage stress and anxiety.

It may not alter your brain like meditation can, but research has shown that gardening or even just slow deep breathing can reduce stress.

My suggestion is to give meditation a try, though. If you’re not into it, there’s always gardening or slow breathing!

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