How Stress Affects The Aging Process

We all experience a certain level of stress during throughout our lifetimes. Daily stressful situations at work can be a short-term source of stress, or a traumatic event can cause long-term stress problems. Stress actually has an impact on the way we age and the level of life expectancy we have. Since the effects of stress have been studied for many years now, scientists have been able to understand these effects and consequences much more over time. The symptoms of stress include both physical and mental health symptoms.

There are a few different types of stress and various stress-related disorders. The different levels of stress are classified as acute stress, which is a frequent yet milder form of stress. Episodic acute stress, which is a less consistent but much more powerful form of stress that usually comes over people surrounding certain topics that are happening in their life.

Chronic stress is the highest level of stress that scientists have discovered and is the gravest level of stress out of these three. It usually has a huge impact on the people that experience it and can be very dangerous for those who go through it since it mostly goes untreated, due to the fact that they rarely view it as something unusual in their lives. This is why learning stress management and how to handle stress is important in living a healthy life. Stress can affect us at any age from young people to older adults.

The Symptoms of Stress

When people experience stress, they are usually going through certain things in their lives that make them feel poorly both mentally and physically. For every level of stress, there are different signs and symptoms that demonstrate the presence of an abnormality, and they are usually quite different from each other since each individual level has its way of impacting the body and mind.

For acute stress there are more subtle yet very real symptoms, and they usually take the form of physical ailments such as aches and pains in the back, neck, and muscles all over the body; overarousal in the form of fast heart rate, high blood pressure, dizziness, heart palpitations, and chest pain. It also appears in the form of emotional distress like short temper, anxiety, mild depression, and anger. These can all be a collective indicator of acute stress or can be individually identified as acute stress symptoms.

For episodic stress the symptoms are a small bit more aggressive depending on the type of personality you have, and thus can take many forms. If the person has a “type A” personality, meaning they are a bit aggressive, urgent, competitive, and impatient, the person’s stress will show in the form of aggressive reactions, and a constant urgency to get things done correctly and on time.

“Type B” personalities are basically “Type A”’s polar opposite. They are subtle and modest and are usually consumed in their tasks in order to get things done. “Type B” personalities respond to stress in the form of constant worrying in a silent, ‘out of the way’ manner. They still worry just as much, but they do not go out and try to get things done with such urgency; these people prefer not to mess up the balance they have created by trying not to pile on too many stressful tasks.

In the case of chronic stress, the symptoms are quite severe and can be all-consuming both mentally and physically. The symptoms experienced by the people with chronic stress can vary from complete lack of motivation, disinterest for things they used to enjoy, and accepting to no longer try to look for solutions to their problems. In severe cases, chronic stress provokes violent (sometimes uncontrollable) outbursts, heart attacks (or risk of heart attacks), weak immune system, and contemplation of suicide (in the worst cases, this is viewed by the sufferer as the final solution).

The Effects of Stress on the Body

The amount of stress coursing through the human body actually has a very influential power over its health. Since stress is produced by the glands in the body that secrete cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine when there are abnormal amounts of this chemical running through a person’s body, there are going to be different categories of consequences.

Cortisol is a highly potent chemical that our body produces when there is a moment of arousal (at times, “fight or flight response” is a term used to describe these moments). It is produced by the body at or around the same time as adrenaline and norepinephrine and is responsible for creating a “high alert” state in your body.

Many times the brain goes through the tasks that one has in front of them; when this happens the stressed body actually produces small amounts of these chemicals. This happens in all human bodies. The only differences between a brain that is carefree and one that is stressed is the number of times the brain runs through the list of tasks one has, the actual amount of chemicals that are produced, and the physical reaction it gives way to.

Depending on the amount of stress a person is under, the reactions slightly vary. For people with acute stress experience anything from sweaty hands, faster heart rate, high blood pressure, muscular tension, among others. When a body experiences acute stress it mainly affects the heart, large muscles, and blood pressure, thus making it harder for the body to function as it should. The prolonged effects of acute stress are those related to cardiovascular problems such as heart disease, and immune system problems. So, acute stress mainly affects the way the body matures and the person’s risk of getting infections during the later stages in life.

A body under the influence of episodic acute stress becomes much more susceptible to infections since the immune system actually lowers its defenses more than with acute stress due to the overpowering levels of adrenal chemicals in the body. Also, many people with episodic acute stress report experiencing depression, which many times influences their food intake and the amount of time they spend outside. This has a large impact on the person’s present and future health, and can sometimes affect the way a body ages. For example: when a person does not consume enough vitamins and minerals it becomes apparent in their skin and hair, and this can have an effect on the way their skin ages and looks in the future.

Chronic Stress’ Effects

Chronic stress affects the process of how a body ages in various ways. These consist of both internal and external consequences and can be harmful in a few ways. Internally, a person suffers major personality changes that can sometimes be permanent (if not resolved in therapy or with medication). Also, outlooks on their life or on the way that they perceive and deal with problems are deeply affected by the depression, anxiety, and anger experienced under this level of stress.

Externally, chronic stress can have a huge effect on the person’s skin, similar to what happens under episodic acute stress level, except chronic stress is usually experienced for much more time thus leaving much more visible changes in the skin. In one study done in San Francisco, scientists proved that people with jobs as caregivers to patients with dementia were showing a highly accelerated rate of cell aging and mental strain. Their central nervous system was at high alert, and when the scientists told the tests subjects that they were going to give a public speech, they noticed even higher stress levels (because of stress anticipation).

Chronic stress and aging actually go hand in hand in many cases because it brings with it so many things that accelerate the aging process. There have been many studies that show just how much stress affects aging in both women and men, and most of these studies have shown that chronic stress is one of the reasons women and men age much faster than, say, their peers with lowers stress levels.

With its effect on the heart, the central nervous system, the immune system, and the adrenal glands, chronic stress becomes one of the reasons people with high-stress lifestyles almost always look and feel older than other people their age. These people are affected not only physically but mentally as well and are usually in a highly probable position to contract both physical and mental illnesses.

How to Prevent Aging from High-Stress Levels

Many times studies have shown that people experiencing high levels of stress begin to take care of themselves less over time and get to the point where they are no longer nurturing their own needs. This probably happens due to the people not finding a reason to take care of personal health details, or being overtaken by depression or anxiety (a common accompaniment to stress). So, maybe we cannot prevent our lives from being stressful, but we can aim to take better care of ourselves and of each other during these times.

Try taking a walk on a sunny morning to get some fresh air and sunlight on your skin. This has shown to improve both mood and health. Experiment with going to a sauna or hot spring to relax your body and mind. Cook or order a healthy meal often to get your body some nutrition. Run or jog in the evenings after work to ease your mind of the stressful lifestyle you have. Take up painting or playing your instrument – this has proven to lighten moods and to help the brain under chronic stress. And most importantly, always try to get enough sleep. Sleep as much as you can during your work week and on days off sleep in an extra hour if possible. Your brain will be so thankful and your days will start off fresh and new.

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