Stress, Resilience and Healthy Longevity by Dr. Landry
As we continue with our 2023 theme, The How of Healthy Longevity, we’ve learned the important role of resilience: what it is, its complex nature, and how we can strengthen it. In this blog, we’ll address the role of stress and the absolute requirement to manage it in order to bolster our resilience and thereby move toward a healthy longevity.
We’ve all heard or said things like: “I’m so stressed,” “Stress is good,” “Stress is bad,” “I’d be OK if I could get rid of this stress,” “The world is stressful, we can’t get away from it.” So, what if I told you that your stress is self-induced? I suspect you might feel anger or at least disbelief. Yes, it’s annoying to hear this, but also optimistic, because if it’s self-induced, it can also be self-managed.
And we must manage it. Seventy-five to ninety percent of medical visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related conditions. And it is estimated that the cost of stress-related conditions is 300 billion per year!
Why do we have stress?
We have inherited our stress response from our ancestors. Without it, they would not have survived, and we would not be here talking about it today. It is called a fight or flight response and it is designed to save us in an emergency. So, our ancestor Hector is out walking, and meets a lion. He runs or he fights, and whichever he chooses, he will do it with enormously enhanced strength and speed, because all his physiology is geared to survive. This explains how people can lift cars off trapped people or hop out of the way of an oncoming car, or soldiers can do almost superhuman things. But this response is meant to be of short duration and designed for us to do something.
Why do we have so much stress today?
We do not live in the world of our ancestors. Today, our pace of life, spread of information, noise, time urgency, and potential threats are much more prevalent than for Hector. Our time-based, production-oriented culture is making us sick, and yes, killing us. Stress, in fact, erodes our resilience, hence the widespread stress-related diseases.
However, our higher-level brain is the other culprit. If a zebra is chased by a lion and survives, he is grazing shortly after, seemingly peaceful as ever. If we humans are attacked, most of us would carry that around with us, perhaps for the rest of lives, making us fearful and anxious… i.e., stressed.
The blessings and curse of our magnificent brain
With our higher-level brains, we can, in fact, produce a threat at any time. When we worry about our to-do list, our finances, our children/grandchildren, being late, or the world situation…all these things become situations that our bodies react to as if they were real and immediate threats to us. Our stress response becomes chronic and, because we usually cannot do anything about what we’re worried about, it begins to literally rot us from within. Our thoughts drive our emotions, which drive our physiology and our reactions to those emotions. The ancient Greek, Epictetus, had it right. “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
The good news…the blessing of our superbrain… is that we have the ability to recognize this chronic stress in ourselves, and to override its otherwise automatic negative effects. This is why I said earlier that most of our stress is self-induced. Like Epictetus said, it is our thoughts of potentially stressful situations which cause our chronic stress. No lions, only thoughts of lions. How then, can we engage our superbrains to reduce, rather than create, stress?
The magical power of presence
We have all heard that we should be more present, more mindful. In fact, those who are more mindful, such as those who regularly meditate, experience reduced blood pressure, inflammation, and heart disease, as well as less cognitive decline and a host of additional positive health effects. Meditation is an excellent way to become more present, more mindful, but it is not the only way. Anything that increases awareness without thought or judgement will work to reduce our stress levels and therefore increase our resilience.
Paying attention to what we are doing, however simple, is being mindful, more present, and will allow us to observe what’s happening in our minds and bodies. Just by recognizing what’s happening is enough to stop the runaway thought-emotion-reaction process. Here are some examples of mindfulness-enhancing practices:
A walk in Nature
Practicing a skill (art, woodwork, knitting…)
Being with a pet
Reading for pleasure
Taking regular time-outs to observe what’s going on within
Stressful situations abound in our world. How we respond to them determines whether they produce stress in us or are like water off a duck’s back. Engaging in regular mindfulness-inducing activities can help prevent the triggering of our stress response and enable us to halt the negative effects when it is triggered.
Eckhart Tolle, in his seminal work, The Power of Now tells us there are only three things to do when confronted with a stressful situation:
Fix the situation, or make a plan to fix it (Doing something)
Walk away (It is not your problem to solve)
Accept it (why fight reality?)
Excellent advice indeed.
About Dr. Roger Landry
Dr. Roger Landry is a preventive medicine physician, and President and Chief Content Officer of Masterpiece, a group of multi-discipline specialists in healthy longevity who partner with communities to enrich their wellness offering, and with individuals to support their healthy longevity strategy. Dr. Landry is the author of the award-winning Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging. He hosts a podcast Dr. Roger and Friends: The Bright Side of Longevity.
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