Monday, May 18, 2015

Stress-Less Aging

I don’t mean to stress you out, but it appears that, according to a growing number of scientific reports, stress makes us age quicker. Research suggests that from our skin, to our hearts, brains, and even at a cellular level, the more we stress the older we get. The question, “Do we age because of stress or is getting older stressful?” leaves us with yet another chicken and egg scenario.

We're a nation that is collectively losing its mind over this whole stress thing. We’re told that it’s a natural response, an evolutionary act of survival to fight or flee from harm. We’re also told that this response itself can kill us. One side says that we have to control life events in order to reduce stress, while the other states that we only need to control how we think about stress to reduce its damaging effects.

According to the American Psychological Association’s yearly Stress in America survey, people of all ages experience stress and report that it’s having a negative impact on their life satisfaction. This has given rise to a stress reduction market that has produced a myriad of products, practices and potions designed to tame the stress beast. Despite strong anti-stress and anti-aging marketing, not only are we still getting old, we’re still stressing out and I think I’ve figured out why.

I’ve spent a large amount of time over the last several years thinking, writing, and talking about stress. I have even given myself the title of “stress therapist” to replace my old title of “stressed out therapist.” It was while I was on my way to give a talk on stress entitled Stressed for Success, that I had an epiphany. (It was probably more like a flash of intuition, but epiphany just sounds more profound.) During talks on stress I often ask the rhetorical question of why sane, rational, and mostly intelligent people continue to have stress reactions despite knowing the reaction itself will have no impact on whatever is happening. Then it struck me, the reason for this is that many of us deal with stress by stressing out. (I will humbly accept the Nobel Prize for this on behalf of stressed out people everywhere.)

This insight (I’ve humbly toned it down some.) helps me understand why most people answer the question, “Tell me what your stress coping skills are,” with a blank stare. They think stress is a coping skill. As I thought this through more I came up with a list of ideas we’ve come up with to support this notion:

1. Worrying about something bad happening can actually keep the bad thing from happening.
2. Expecting things to go bad makes it hurt less when it actually happens.
3. Fighting against what is already happening makes us stronger.
4. Thinking that we’re right and the situation is wrong makes us morally superior to whatever is happening.
5. Resistance keeps us from getting pushed around by life.
6. If I accept what is, nothing will ever change.
7. Stress energy is the only thing that gets me through my day.

Once I understood that people are using stress as a stress coping mechanism, I realized that trying to get them to stop stressing was asking them to give up the last hope they had of living a sane life. My new therapeutic technique is to help people get better at stress; “Stress it good,” to paraphrase the 80’s philosophers DEVO. In psychotherapy circles, this is known as prescribing the symptom. It’s a paradoxical technique that works because taking conscious control over something that seems to beyond our control immediately brings a sense of relief. So, the next time a problem comes along, here are some ways to stress it good:

1. Realize that the sensations of stress are simply a call to attention. Your mind radar has picked up an incoming signal and it's your job to discern if it poses an actual threat.
2. Stop trying not to have a stress response, this only prolongs the experience as the very effort to stop the process keeps you focused on it.
3. Put a timer on it. Even the stress doomsayers confess that it's "prolonged" stress that is harmful. Give yourself permission to have a 15 minute melt-down and expel the pent up energy. (Tip: Avoid doing this in public places, around expensive household items, or at work.)
4. Own it. Take responsibility for creating the reaction to an event that, minus your interpretation of it, is neither good nor bad.
5. Name it, don't blame it. Simply call it like you see it without the added touch of getting down on yourself for stressing out. In the end, it's your conditioning that causes the response, not some twisted psychology that makes you want to punish yourself.

As we move headlong into old age it would be nice to think that we would grow out of being stressed. There does, in fact, seem to be some evidence that our "This is going to be bad" meter operates at a different level after a certain age. When we take a hard look at the, "Aging is stressful" campaigners, we find that they have a lot in common with the "Younger is better" crowd. I have created a slogan for these folks:

Stress doesn't make us old, aging does.

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