Have you ever felt what it seemed like “overnight” you looked at yourself one morning and thought of how you used to perceive your youthful and vigorous self and then you looked in the mirror feeling like you have not gracefully aged? After going to various reunions from High School to higher education, have you ever noticed how some people seemed to have not aged so much and others who were so radically different that you would never have recognized them had you had not brought the yearbook? That has happened at many of my reunions.
Some of us were born with longer telomeres (the tails of the DNA that divide and divide over the years) and some people have shorter DNA tails. However, with the stress response and challenge response we had developed from childhood into adulthood may have affected the lengths of these important physiological DNA telomeres. These responses can either lengthen or shorten the telomeres, which has to do with how we engage in the challenge response (to fully engage , perform at your best, and win; or the threat response (characterized by withdrawal and defeat, as you slump in your seat or freeze and your body preparing for wounding and shame) as you anticipate a bad outcome. A predominant habitual threat response can, over time, work itself into your cells and grind down your telomeres.
After the first 18 years growing up in a high stress family environment, I carried that same threat response into my adulthood. About 32 years later, I developed a severe autoimmune response from possibly carrying this chronic stress burden. With my nutritional, including spiritual, recovery within the last six years, I must have lengthened my telomeres as I am looking younger and feeling more vibrant than I did at age 50. Back then, I carried so much “burden” in my family being the one who took the brunt of the psychological and physical abuse and tried to minimize the abusive behavior from my siblings. Being born into a family and feeling isolated and keeping things looking perfect outside the family walls did not help me to emotionally develop. I really learned “the walls of secrecy” that were not serving me or anyone I was involved with in my adult years. When I started my educational journey in the last six years with my nutritional and life coaching career, I did not know that I would be writing educational blogs or benefiting others with my coaching skills. So it is not too late to get more vibrant and youthful as our body ages.
Luckily, my wake up call happened to me over six years ago, when I developed my autoimmune disorder of psoriasis. What I have learned so far (a never-ending search for greater meaning in life), I have chosen and applied the challenge responses into my life. Change was hard because I wanted to go back to my old ways when it was really hard. I am now working with more serious diligence on my challenge response with myself and others and turning the threat response on its head. Even my clients, when discussing difficulties in applying changes into their lives, they seem to finally realize they are doing similar things to themselves. As you build on your own challenge responses, you will start to see patterns of others with these conflicts of many thoughts and feelings when facing a stressful situation, then you can help them to adjust their behavior by being an example in your own personal relationships. Here are two different types of responses: One is characterized by feeling threatened, by a fear of losing, or possibly being shamed. The other is characterized by feeling challenged and confident about achieving a positive outcome. In a study, there was a proportion of these responses that mattered most for telomere health. The volunteers who felt more threat than challenge had shorter telomeres. Those who saw the stressful task as more of a challenge than a threat had longer telomeres. (1) Over the years towards forgiveness of myself of being angry and feeling powerlessness within my family dynamics, I instead wanted to feel joy and gratefulness in my life. I, then, decided to control the difficult and stressful events in my life. In addition, I recently found out that I was helping my telomeres by shifting the way I viewed those past events.
Since I used to anticipate a stressful event (muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing) and its outcome as negative, I was not feeling the challenge response until I had learned to relabel it by saying, “This is good stress, energizing me so I can perform well!” This can help shape the body’s response to be more energizing, bringing more dilation to the vessels and more blood to the brain. Reflecting on the incidents in my life, I tended to feel more threatened instead of challenged. I used to feel troubled and felt anticipatory threat about events that hadn’t happened yet and that may not ever happen. I did not have the skills back then or the people I surrounded myself with that could have explained how to change my thoughts from stress to a challenging response. My body’s cells were diving under the covers and thereby shortening the telomeres.
Scientists used to believe it was a more linear process that we experience events in the world, our limbic system (amygdala) reacts with an emotion, like fear or anger, which causes the body to respond with an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. But it’s more complicated than that. The brain is wired to predict things ahead of time, not just react after things have happened. (2) The brain uses memories of past experiences to continually anticipate what will happen next, and then corrects those predictions with both the current incoming information from the outside world, and from all the signals within the body. Then our brain comes up with an emotion to match all of this. Within seconds, we patch all this information together, without our awareness, and we feel some emotion.
If our “database” of past experience has a lot of shame in it, as mine did, we are more likely to expect shame again. For example, if I feel high arousal and jittery, maybe it was from something from a strong cup of tea or coffee, and then you see two people who could be talking about you, your mind may quickly cook up the emotions of shame and threat. My mother taught us that well and I absorbed that into my being. Our emotions are not pure reactions to the world; they are our own fabricated constructions of the world. (3)
Knowing how emotions are created is powerful. Once you know this, you can have more choice over what you experience. Instead of feeling your body’s stress responses and viewing them as harmful, a common experience in your brain’s database, you can think about the arousal differently as a source of fuel that will help your brain work quickly and efficiently. And if you practice this enough, then eventually your brain will come to predict feelings of arousal as helpful. It took many years of daily practice. Even if you are one of those people whose brain is hardwired to feel more threat, you can feel that immediate instinctive survival response and then revise your story. You can choose to feel challenged.
A challenge response doesn’t make you less stressed. Your sympathetic nervous system is still highly aroused, but it is a positive arousal, putting you in a more powerful, more focused state. It was so helpful to me recently when I had an intense visceral reaction to a stormy night with maximum crosswind, icy conditions and two snow storms on either side of the runway that if I had not converted that threat to a challenge response quickly, I would have needed to choose to do something different. I focused through the danger. I channeled this stress to give me good energy for this performance and told myself, “My heart is racing and my chest is tight. Fantastic and now let’s get this aircraft on the ground and visualize a good outcome.” It is good to be tested. This was a new normal for me once again.
It’s healthy to have times when your cardiovascular system is mobilized and psyche is primed for action. But our minds and bodies are not built to sustain this kind of high stimulation. I used to do this on a consistent basis. Being able to relax, although it has been overrated as a sole source of stress management, is still necessary. I recommend that you regularly engage in an activity that brings you deep restoration. There is high-quality evidence that meditation, chanting, and other mindfulness practices can reduce stress, stimulate telomerase (your body makes this), and perhaps even help your telomeres grow.
Stress and stressful events do not live in each little moment, although they can visit. There is some freedom in each moment, because we can have a choice about how we spend this moment. We can’t rewrite the past and we can’t dictate what happens in the future, but we can choose where to place our attention in the moment. And although we can’t always choose our immediate reactions, we can shape our subsequent responses.
Some studies have shown that merely anticipating a stressful event has almost the same effect on the brain and body as experiencing the stressful event. (4) When you worry about events that haven’t happened yet, you’re letting stress flow over its time boundaries the way a river overflows its boundaries, flooding the minutes, hours, and days that could otherwise be more enjoyable. I know those years of my life and how hard it was to keep focus on what mattered. I shut off my energies to relationships and focused all on my career because it didn’t make me hurt; avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.
It never fails. Just after you meet a deadline, or you’re going on a long-overdue vacation, you come down with a severe cold of sneezing, runny nose, sore throat and fatigue. Coincidence? Probably not. While your body is actively fighting stress, your immune system can be bolstered for a time. Chronic stress suppresses aspects of the immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to infections, causing us to produce fewer antibodies in response to vaccinations, and making our wounds heal more slowly. (5)
For years, scientists were unsure just how stress, which lives in the mind, could damage the immune system. Now, the important part of the equation is the telomeres. Our body makes telomerase only if our body has the right nutrition. People with chronic stress have shorter telomeres, and short telomeres can lead to prematurely aging immune cells , which means worse immune function. Our minds are not isolated from our body’s immune system.
It is never too late to change your life unless you your body expires before it’s time. We have choices in this life. However, two choices we don’t have is that we will die and we will live until we die. What will be your next step to check off on your bucket list? Please contact me below for a free consultation for your life patterns to change.
- Epel, E., et al., “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging?” Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres,” Annals of the New Yord Academy of Sciences 1172 (August 2009): 34-53, doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-6632.2009.04414.x.
- Barrett, L., How Emotions Are Made (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in press).
- Waugh, C.E.S. Panage, W.B. Mendes, and I.H. Gotlib, “Cardiovascular and Affective Recovery from Anticipatory Threat, ” Biological Psychology 84, no. 2 (May 2010): 169-175, doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.01.010; and Lutz, A., et al., “Altered Anterior Insula Activation During Anticipation and Experience of Painful Stimuli in Expert Meditators,” NeuroImage 64 (January 1, 2013): 538-46, doi: 10.2016/j.neuroimage. 2012.09.030.
- Gouin, J.P., L. Hantsoo, and J.K. Kiecolt-Glaser, “Immune Dysregulation and Chronic Stress Among Older Adults: A Review,” Neuroimmunomodulation 15, nos. 4-6 (2008): 251-59, doi:10.1159/0000156468.