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In our last article, we spoke about how daily stress can cause our sex hormones to rapidly decline. We also discussed other common health problems that are linked to stress.
But is there anything we can really do about stress? With stress being such a common part of our life, is it even possible to avoid its negative effects? Even more, with so many different sources of stress around us, is it realistic to become aware of all of them? And if not, what sources of stress are we missing?
In this article, we continue our collaboration with Dr. Dalal Akoury, MD, an anti-aging medicine doctor who specializes in combining conventional and alternative medicine to optimize longevity and wellness. Dr. Akoury shared major sources of stress that despite being common, most people are unaware of, along with evidence-based life-changing tips shown to promote a healthy strong resilience to stress.
To listen to the complete interview with Dr. Akoury, or read the transcript, see: LongevIQ Podcast.
The evolution of stress: from saber-toothed tiger to your new boss
As we mentioned in our last article, our stress response evolved a very long time ago when most sources of stress and threats from our environment were short-lived. Just imagine our ancestors running away from a lion or another scary animal. Clearly, a very stressful situation! But also, one that ends quickly. If we survived the attack, we would then have a chance to relax and recover.
However, in modern life, we often find ourselves under an ongoing state of chronic stress. Whether it is our work, finances, or the news, to our minds it appears as if the lion or the saber-toothed tiger are always around the corner ready to attack. Our genes have not adapted fast enough for this new environment. Our system is still adapted to flee or fight predators in the short term, rather than to deal with constant worries about the economy or whether your new boss likes you.
Not surprisingly, this “evolutionary gap” has been shown to correlate with our health and longevity. Studies have found that short-term stress is beneficial for our health and immune system function. Chronic stress, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It leads to a compromised immunity that can ultimately manifest a disease. Even more, longevity researchers found that people exposed to chronic stress often age rapidly. The telomeres in their cells shorten faster, along with many other markers of aging being affected.
What is stress, really?
People usually think of stress as the events that happen around them. If they lose their job, fight with their spouse, or read the news, they believe that this is stress.
However, stress isn’t an event – it’s actually our reaction to an event.
For example, different people may experience the same external event. One person might get very upset and stressed out, while the other one might not consider that event meaningful at all. Stress is really an internal phenomenon, not an external one. It doesn’t come from what happens, but from how you react to what happens.
This understanding can be extremely helpful in potentially stressful situations. When you can see your response as separate from the actual event, you have a lot of power in your hands. You can then have more control over how you respond. This increased awareness can help reduce the impact external stressors have on your overall stress levels.
Becoming aware of the many faces of stress
Indeed, modern life has introduced plenty of stressors, many of which are quite obvious. Jobs, money, social media, getting stuck in traffic during rush hour, the news- the list goes on and on. In many cases, you may recognize that certain events stress you out. In some cases, you may even recognize your body’s immediate reaction as these events occur.
However, as we discussed, not all sources of stress in our lives are easily recognized. There are more subtle stressors that despite being common, are often overlooked. The fact that you may not be aware of a stressor, doesn’t mean it can’t stress you out. In many cases, the opposite is the case. As these stressors stay undetected in the “background”, they can increase the overall stress burden on the system, leaving you more vulnerable to getting chronically stressed.
If you’re finding that something seemingly insignificant or small causes you to feel stressed, you may want to look deeper, as there may be other sources of stress you may not be aware of.
5 hidden sources of stress that affect your longevity
To give you an idea, here are some common examples of hidden stressors that can wreak havoc on your health and longevity. Yet, not many people are aware or would consider these as even related to their stress levels.
Keep in mind, as we mentioned, the way different stressors affect each person can be very different, and sometimes, quite complex. Always remember, you don’t have to take this journey by yourself. A qualified health practitioner can bring a fresh new outlook on things and can help you become more aware of potential stressors in your life, as well as how you respond to them.
1 – Lack of love
There’s a lot to be said about the importance of love in our life, that goes above and beyond health, wellness, or longevity. We’re social creatures who need to love and be loved. Love is one of the most essential basic human needs. If we aren’t feeling loved or experiencing enough love in our lives, this can become a major source of stress whether we recognize it or not.
It’s therefore essential to be mindful of the different relationships you have in your life, and how they affect this basic need. This also includes another important relationship that may not always get enough attention. The relationship we have with ourselves.
2 – Constipation and GI issues
Despite what you may have heard, for optimal health, we should all have at least one to three good bowel movements per day. If it’s less than that, the digestive system may experience stress, which can affect the whole body, including our mental health.
In fact, the connection between our digestive and mental health is well established. For example, research has shown that the likelihood of mood and anxiety disorders in constipated patients is much higher than the general population.
3 – Not enough high-quality sleep
I often say that sleep is one of the most powerful anti-aging beauty tools we all have. It is the time when most of the body’s healing, repair, and regeneration occur. In addition to releasing potent anti-aging hormones, the body also regulates other hormones including reducing excess levels of stress hormones.
As you may expect, research has found that lack of sleep can contribute to stress. Several studies have shown a link between poor sleep and high levels of cortisol, including a reduced resilience to stress. Even worse, because lack of sleep often causes more stress, it can make it harder to break the cycle and recover.
Now, poor sleep quality and stress can very quickly turn into one big vicious cycle. You are so stressed out, that you can’t sleep. The next day comes, and you feel even more stressed. As this stress-provoking loop continues, things appear more and more stressful which disrupts your sleep even more.
Some people believe they can get away with less sleep if they follow certain anti-aging or biohacking practices. This however is never a good strategy, especially when you consider the level of evidence on the importance of sleep to our health and wellness, not to mention, longevity. If you experience sleep issues and can’t figure out why, it is always a good idea to speak with a functional medicine doctor, as there may be an underlying issue causing the sleep problems.
4 – Physical pain
Physical pain can have a devastating effect on our quality of life, especially when it becomes chronic. You may feel that you have become used to living with the pain or that you “can tough it out”. Many people believe that by ignoring the pain, they have “things under control”.
Now, believing you can walk through the pain can be sometimes helpful, but it doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t continue to cause more stress to the system in the background.
This, however, brings an important point. According to research, it is our mindset that can make a big difference here. A negative emotional state has been shown to increase pain, whereas a positive one – lowers the pain.
And there are quite a few things you can do that can help with that. Certain mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are well known for their ability to promote a positive mindset. These techniques have also been shown to help with both chronic and acute pain[5,6]. And the benefits don’t stop here. Multiple studies have demonstrated that mind-body techniques can also help manage a high variety of stress-related conditions.
I find this inspiring and empowering. It is an important reminder of one of the most powerful anti-aging strategies for longevity and wellness we all have access to – having a positive mindset.
5 – Toxins
Unfortunately, modern life has introduced stressors not just to our daily lives, but also to our environment. Whether it is the air we breathe, our drinking water, our food or cleaning supplies, our environment is now filled with a huge variety of toxins and man-made chemicals, some of which, our bodies have never been exposed to before. As the body tries to figure out what to do with these substances or how to get rid of them, you can probably guess the result – more stress load, and more potential imbalances.
Now, clearly, we don’t live in a vacuum. Realistically, we can’t avoid all these toxic substances. It’s important, however, to become aware of potential sources of toxins around us and eliminate as many as we can.
On that note, if you are somewhat new to this toxins-health topic, now is a good time to set some expectations. As you look into all the different toxins you may be exposed to, be ready for some shocking discoveries. These toxins are everywhere these days. If you read my article about anti-aging strategies for youthful skin, you may recall the section of how common toxins in skin care products are. In fact, you can test it right now for yourself. Just grab your favorite product and try to read the label. You are likely to find toxins even in the most popular luxury skin-care products, including anti-aging ones. How ironic.
How to deal with hidden (and not-so-hidden) stressors in your life
Let’s say you recognize one or more stressors in your life. As we mentioned, while we can’t always control life events, there’s a lot we can do to control the way we respond to them. Below are a few simple basic tips that can help:
1 – Pause
When you realize something stressful happened, do not react. Instead, take a moment to reflect:
- Feel what just happened
- Listen to your body and the environment
- Wait before you react
- Take a few deep breaths (see tip #2)
In many cases, a situation perceived as stressful in the immediate moment turns out not to be nearly as bad as it initially seemed. In fact, it might not be a problem at all. Allow yourself some time to process things. Take a moment (or two) to evaluate before reacting.
Don’t be surprised if a few minutes later, you’ll be happy you didn’t react because you will realize you don’t need to react at all.
2 – Breathe
Certain breathing exercises can be very helpful during times of stress. The beauty of deep breathing is that you don’t need to learn complex methods to enjoy its powerful stress-relieving benefits. In fact, training yourself to breathe slowly and release emotional toxins can be quite simple. For example:
- Breathe in as deep as you can
- Hold the air briefly
- Breathe out
- As you do so, imagine you are releasing all the tension and negative emotions out of your body.
- Repeat for a few minutes.
Practice this simple breathing technique at least a few times a day, especially when you feel that you start to get stressed.
3 – Laugh
While humor may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we experience a stressful situation, laughter is a potent evidence-based anti-stressor. Also mentioned as laugh therapy, research has suggested that laughter can help support our mental health, boost our immune system function, and even regulate excess cortisol levels.
Back to modern social behaviors one more time, we’re so trained to be productive, that we often forget how important play, laughter, and joy are.
Just like good sleep, “rest and play” are not optional “nice to have” parts of life. They are essential elements of life! We should all prioritize and make enough time for fun activities we enjoy in our busy schedules. You deserve it!
Try to find a way to laugh every day. You don’t need an excuse for that, and you don’t need to wait for a special event either. Even just a few minutes of watching or reading something funny can make a big difference in your stress levels. Even better, and for superior results, see if you can share a good laugh with someone you love or care about every day. Laughing, as you may have heard, can be contagious.
4 – Sleep
As we mentioned, a good night’s sleep plays a key role in our ability to deal with the inevitable small daily stressors the following day. While sleep optimizing techniques can definitely help, sometimes all your body needs to sleep well are just a few basics. Interestingly enough, with all the modern life’s hustle and bustle, many people miss these simple easy-to-do sleep essentials:
- Healthy sleep-wake cycles actually start in the morning. Try to go outside and get some natural sunlight, even for just a few minutes, even on cloudy days. This can help promote healthy circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles.
- Evening and nighttime, however, minimize light exposure. Artificial light at night, especially the blue light from electronic devices can suppress the production of melatonin, a powerful anti-aging hormone that is essential for high-quality sleep. When possible, try to make your bedroom as dark as possible. Alternatively, use a sleep mask.
- Avoid stressful content before sleep. Watching your favorite show before falling asleep? You may feel this type of entertainment helps you forget your daily worries and relax, but your mind may perceive screen violence or drama as real. As a result, you may end up even more stressed out and you won’t even know why. We are constantly bombarded with so many different forms of stressful content in our environment, day and night, that it’s really important to be mindful of these. Especially, in the evening. As you become more aware, create an evening routine that makes you feel calm, relaxed, and even better, loved and appreciated. Don’t be surprised if you will sleep like you haven’t slept in years.
Building a strong resilience to stress for a long and healthy life
Becoming aware of the different sources of stress in your life and how you respond to them is not always simple and may take a while. This effort, however, may turn out to be one of the best things you have ever done for your health and wellbeing, and most likely, for longevity as well. You deserve it!