Emotional stress has many causes. People cite worries about money, work and relationships as the top reasons why they feel emotional stress. However a new source of emotional stress today is technology. For years, we were told the new generation of technology would improve our lives. And this is true to an extent. For example, I can talk with anybody, anywhere in the world from my phone. I can even see them if I choose to. Tasks that used to take time and many other people to complete, such as banking, can be done from your smartphone in minutes. Not only that, a computer now allows you to access enormous amounts of information. These are undoubtedly convenient and time-freeing aspects of technology. But what are the consequences of this ‘switched on’ way of life?
The first is it increases the speed of our lives making us feel more stressed. There’s now an expectation you can complete tasks more quickly. Instead of waiting a few days for a letter to arrive in the mail, it’s delivered almost immediately to your email inbox. And with that delivery comes the expectation that you will respond to it right away. Social media is also a source of emotional stress. It’s wonderful that we are connected but how often do you sit on a train or around a coffee table and everyone’s looking at their phone, connecting with the world but not with each other? I think that paradox of connection and disconnection is a real stress on our lives.
During an acute stress response, several things happen. Firstly, your body diverts blood from your digestive system. You could eat the best nutrients available, your blood has been diverted from your digestive system and you have raised cortisol and adrenaline levels, you won’t absorb the nutrients.
Additionally emotional stress affects the immune system. The effects of emotional stress on the body have been described by Nobel-prize winning molecular biologist, Elizabeth Blackburn, and psychologist, Elissa Epel, in their groundbreaking research into the immune cells of mothers. They looked at the experiences of 58 women – 19 had healthy children and 39 had to take care of chronically ill children. Not surprisingly, the mothers taking care of chronically ill children reported feeling more stressed. But here’s the groundbreaking part. Blackburn tested what happened to these women’s cells, in particular, to their telomeres that are located on the ends of chromosomes. The length of your telomeres (and production of the enzyme telomerase that repairs and lengthens telomeres) influences the amount of cellular ageing. The shorter your telomeres, the greater the cellular ageing. This study found a link between low telomerase and stress-related diseases. It was the first proof for the influence of mind on body cells. As Blackburn explained to the New York Times, “This was the first time you could clearly see cause and effect from a non-genetic influence. Genes play a role in telomerase levels, but this was a not gene. This was something impacting the body that came from the outside and affecting its ability to repair itself.” Asked whether this was scientific proof of the mind-body connection, Blackburn answered, “It’s a proof. There have been others. Researchers have found that the brain definitely sends nerves directly to organs of the immune system and not just to the heart and the lower gut. In that way, too, the brain is influencing the body.” In short, psychological stress ages cells which can be seen when you measure the wearing down of the tips of the chromosomes, the telomeres.
As a consequence of this research, other studies have been conducted to see if it’s possible to increase the length of telomeres. A 2013, the Lancet Oncology published a study lead by Dean Ornish (and including Elizabeth Blackburn) that looked at 35 men with early-stage prostate cancer. Ten had lifestyle changes including a plant-based diet, moderate exercise, stress reduction such as yoga-based stretching and meditation. They also participated in weekly group support. The other 25 men didn’t make any changes to diet or lifestyle. The results are fascinating. The men that made lifestyle changes experienced a “significant” increase in telomere length of approximately 10 percent. The men in the control group who didn’t change their lifestyle had shorter telomeres – nearly 3 percent shorter – when the five-year study ended. Even though it was a small study, the results suggest managing stress and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce your susceptibility to chronic disease.
We’re all exposed to stress but we can control the way we react to stressful situations.If we can learn to manage our stress by practicing mindfulness then we can give our bodies a better chance to react calmly without soaring cortisol levels. Not every ailment has a psychological underpinning but I think we underestimate the linkages between mind and body.