It’s official. Stress makes you old.
That’s right. Stress makes you old. And we now have the evidence to prove it.
Of course, we’ve all suspected that for a long time … that stress really does age you. But a new study from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) confirms it.
Medical researchers have learned that constant stress causes your telomeres to shorten and die. (You probably didn’t even know you had them.) In essence, telomeres are tiny caps on your cells’ chromosomes that govern cell regeneration. Under great stress, however, your telomeres stop dividing and regenerating and die instead.
In one study, for example, the researchers discovered that women with chronically ill children had telomeres that were much shorter than women of the same age who didn’t have to carry such a burden. And to make things worse, the greater the women PERCEIVED their stress levels to be, the shorter the telomeres and the “older” their cells.
As Dr. Judy Moskowitz, a psychologist at UCSF who worked on the research, concluded, “These telomeres are one of the few biological markers of aging we have.”
But wait, you may be asking, “What happened to the women who didn’t PERCEIVE their lives as stressful?” Stress didn’t age them nearly as much. “For them stress is like water off a duck’s back,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University and the director of the New England Centenarian Project, a nationwide study of 1500 people over the age of 100. “It isn’t the amount of stress that matters but how you manage it,” says Perls.
And I say the same thing. Stress has a lot to do with how it is perceived. For example, members of the National Press Club restaurant in Washington, D.C. were recently talking about how the various media would perceive and report the story of the end of the world. They came up with the following headlines that would most likely appear on the front covers of some newspapers and magazines:
* Washington Post: White House Aides Knew Of Impending Disaster
* New York Times: Catastrophe Predicted, Impact Seen Greatest On Third World
* Los Angeles Times: No Traffic On Freeways Tonight
* USA Today: We Die! (Late Sports, 1C)
* Wall Street Journal: Market Closes Early
* Variety: It’s Curtains!
* New York Daily News: God to City: Drop Dead!
* Time: The End of Time
* Newsweek: The End of Time Magazine
* Sports Illustrated: The Fat Lady Sings
So stress has a lot to do with how it is perceived, but stress management also has a lot to do with how well the stress is handled. As Perls went on to say in his study of people over the age of 100, “A number of centenarians have endured plenty of stress. They lived through the Great Depression and WWI and II, not to mention the usual array of divorces, deaths of loved ones, and even job losses. Yet they don’t seem to internalize it. They just let it go.”
Quite simply, we’ve learned so much about stress, burnout, stress management, and work-life balance the last few years, that no one has to be overstressed, burned out, or off balance … IF you know how to manage your perceptions and use the right tools. Personally, I recommend my keynote and seminar on “Take This Job and Love It! Managing Stress, Preventing Burnout, and Maintaining Balance … On And Off The Job.”
I also recommend the SAUNA technique that I learned from a colleague, Don Tubesing, many years ago. Although I have changed and updated the technique many times since, it goes like this:
S = Set up realistic expectations for yourself.
As comedian Lily Tomlin said some time ago, “One of the chief causes of stress in today’s world is reality.” And the reality is … some of us are killing ourselves by setting up unrealistic, if not crazy and impossible, goals for ourselves.
You see … whenever your goals or expectations are dramatically opposed to reality … and whenever you persist in trying to reach your crazy goals … trouble is on the way. For example, if you’re trying to make a fortune in a few weeks or months, chances are you’ll engage in some behaviors that are just plain irrational (such as spending all your money on lottery tickets) or illegal (such as setting up a Ponzi scheme). If you keep on trying to get someone to love you who clearly doesn’t love you, chances are you’ll engage in some unethical, manipulative behavior.
You need to limit your objectives to what you can actually accomplish … and then take pleasure in their fulfillment.
A = Affirm yourself.
Simply put, TALK to your self positively.
Unfortunately, most people don’t. Most people have a greater capacity to get themselves down than bring themselves up… because they talk to themselves more negatively than positively.
To turn that around, you first and foremost have to be consciously aware of the negative messages you tell yourself.
Of course, I can’t speak for you, but after listening to thousands of people in hundreds of organizations, I can tell you some of the most commonly repeated negatives that people tell themselves. Read through the list and check off the ones you identify with.
* “I must get everything done right now.”
* “I must work hard all the time.”
* “I must get all my work done before I can play.”
* “I must work harder than other people.”
* “The harder I work, the more worthwhile I am.”
* “I must be everything to everyone.”
* “I must get everything done on time.”
* “I must help people whenever they need it, whether or not I have the time or the energy.”
* “Even though I feel empty, I can always go to the bottom of the pot and find something to give to others.”
* “I must never relax, for that would be a waste of time.”
* “I must never be wrong, and I need to correct people when I see them making a mistake.”
* “I expect you to agree with me, to see the world as I see it, and do what I want you to do.”
* “No matter how capable I am, I always know I could have done better.”
* “It’s selfish to take care of myself.”
* “Look at what they did to me.”
* “I must be perfect in everything I do.”
To conquer your stress, to prevent or overcome burnout, you need to catch yourself telling yourself negative comments. As soon as you do, replace your negative thought or comment with a positive comment that has the power to neutralize if not eliminate the “stinkin thinkin.”
For example, if you tell yourself, “I need to hurry, hurry, hurry.” you might tell yourself, “Take your time. You’re rushing yourself needlessly.” If you tell yourself, “I’m never good enough. I always make some mistakes.” it’s time to tell yourself, “I’m not perfect, but I’m learning. I’m getting better and better.”
So stop and think. What have you been whispering to yourself lately? I suspect it’s time for you to affirm yourself with positive words. Tell yourself such things as, “You’re wonderful, warm and inspiring. You’re caring and competent.” Tell yourself, “Even though I can’t make all the difference I would like to make in the world, in my work, or in my family, I can make a difference, and I am making a difference.”
I know this technique of talking to yourself sounds silly, but it works. In fact, all the winning Olympic athletes attest to the power of affirmations or positive self-talk.
But go ahead. You can afford to be a little silly if a technique actually works. That’s what one person discovered, when he wrote: “The best way to forget all your troubles is to wear tight shoes … The nice part about living in a small town, when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone always does … Just when I was getting used to yesterday, along comes today … My mind not only wanders, it sometimes leaves completely … and … Sometimes I think I understand everything, then I regain consciousness.”
U = Unwind.
Your mind and body hangs onto your stress, growing in size, accumulating into something bigger and bigger, until you eventually burn out or blow up. But once again, you don’t have to let that happen to you … if you take time to unwind or let some steam out of the pressure cooker you call your life.
It starts with some quiet listening time, which is all too rare in our society. It’s one of the reasons I take frequent hikes in the mountains or go canoeing way up north … so I don’t hear any human or distracting sounds. I can just listen to myself for a moment, to learn what will unwind and replenish my body, mind, and soul.
Obviously, you listen to others. It’s a gift you give them. Well, please give yourself the same gift. Listen to your pulse, your feet, your shoulders, your hopes, your feelings, your inner spirit. What are they saying that they need so you can unwind?
You may find out that you need to take a walk, go on a run, get out and dance, exercise, go on an adventure, get a change of scenery, engage in some good belly laughs, get some well-needed support from others, or find a quiet spot and just soak in the beauty.
The catch is … you can’t unwind and you can’t give yourself what you need if you never stop to listen to yourself. And without listening, chances are you’ll engage in some behavior that won’t solve your stress problem. If, for example, you need love, shopping won’t help you. Or if your body is sluggish due to a lack of exercise, taking another nap won’t help you either.
Do something to let go of all your accumulated stress. Unwind. But unwind in a way that truly meets your need.
N = Nurture yourself.
In one sense, nurturing yourself is a bit like unwinding, but it goes a step further. Instead of just letting off some steam, you put something back into yourself.
So ask yourself, “Given all the circumstances in my life right now, how could I take better care of myself?” You may choose to go to a movie, read a book, take a bubble bath, get a massage. Again listen to yourself so you discover what truly nurtures you.
Nurture yourself regularly and creatively. Set aside time and energy to develop positive self-nurturing habits. Take action to take care of yourself. Don’t wait for a miracle or a knight in shining armor to come along and fill all your needs. You need to fill your own self, re ignite your own fires, and rekindle your own spirit.
Finally, in our SAUNA formula…
A = Accomplish what is important to you in your work and personal life.
The two extremes of workaholism and laziness never brought success or happiness to anyone. No, it is accomplishment or productivity … in the right amounts … that create a stress-free, spirit-filled life.
Set some goals … some realistic as well as exciting goals … and recognize when you’ve finished what you set out to do. And then reward yourself for your accomplishments.
The key to stress management, to burnout, to work-life balance is recognize when enough is enough. As physician Dr. Allen Elkin puts it, “Stress is like a violin string. If there’s no tension, there’s no music. But if the string is too tight, it breaks. You want to find the right level of tension for you — the level that makes harmony in your life.”
What part of the SAUNA do you most need to do? What are you going to do about it? And when?