Many of us know all too well the discomfort of workplace stress. We must make difficult phone calls, meet tight deadlines, and deal with annoying bosses or coworkers who seem to enjoy making everything more complicated than it has to be.
We know that too much stress can make us moody, irritable, and exhausted — and those long-term stressors can lead to a variety of physical health complications. But is it possible that stress could actually be making you age faster as well?
The Aging Process
Aging is the unavoidable process of growing older and one with which we’re all intimately familiar. As we grow into adulthood, we discover our metabolism slowing, our skin wrinkling, and the gradual onset of more physical aches and pains. And just in case we should try to ignore the obvious, there are unmistakable signs of advancing maturity such as gray hair.
But what exactly is the physical process taking place under the surface? Are these physical changes just a natural byproduct of the passage of time?
If you talk to a biologist, they’ll tell you that aging is simply an accumulation of damage at the cellular and molecular level over time. Every day, the cells that make up our body are making replication errors and being bombarded with external stressors. Individually, these tiny points of damage don’t have much of an impact. However, when they snowball over time, they begin manifesting themselves in the form of physical deterioration, cognitive decline, and other effects.
Scientists who study longevity readily acknowledge that aging is an extremely complicated process. Because of the intricacy and interrelated nature of processes involved in aging, two different people can be the same age yet one can look drastically older.
Everyday Stress And Its Impact On Aging
So…can workplace stress contribute to the breakdown of the telomeres that serve to protect your chromosomes? Or is stress truly making those gray hairs pop out faster? A full explanation is extremely complicated, as you might expect, but simply put, the answer is yes. Choosing to remain in a stressful job can make you look physically older in a variety of ways.
For starters, skin tends to wrinkle based on its normal daily function. If you squint your eyes in disgust or deal with eye strain on a regular basis, you’re much more likely to develop crow’s feet. However, keep in mind that the same is true if you laugh a lot.
If you frequently lose sleep over your stressful job, this could result in dark circles appearing under your eyes. Sleeplessness might also cause you to move more lethargically on a regular basis, ultimately making you appear older than you actually are.
However, the effects of stress go far beyond cosmetic changes. Stress has the power to override the biological processes that keep you alive and healthy.
When too many stress hormones are released into your bloodstream, it can lead to damage to your heart and cardiovascular system. This is one reason why stress can also increase your susceptibility to high blood pressure and heart disease. Stress also affects how your body produces and uses insulin and can suppress your immune system. Stressed-out people tend to call in sick more often than others.
What’s the upshot? Over time, and at high enough levels, the stress from your job can cause you to age faster physically. This has been verified in a number of different studies, including one study from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They found that excessive stress and anxiety can lead to observable differences in telomere lengths. People with high levels of stress were estimated to have aged a functional equivalent of an additional six years.
It’s Not Too Late To Make Changes
Whether you’re a young professional trying to work your way up the corporate ladder or a senior executive making plans for your retirement, it’s never too late to make changes. Working proactively to lower your stress level can reduce its effect on your aging process and help you look and feel younger over time. Listed below are four methods for fighting back against stress.
1. Identify — and then minimize — your top stressors.
The first step is to figure out what’s causing you the most stress and do what you can to eliminate it. Difficult clients? A slow computer? Long hours? Meetings that seem to drag on long after they’ve outlived their usefulness? You have at least some level of control over these.
2. Proactively manage your workload.
Don’t overload yourself with work. Talk to your bosses about your workload, delegate tasks, or hire an assistant. While not everyone has the freedom to make necessary changes at work, we all have the freedom to evaluate our current work situation, compensation, and the toll it’s taking.
3. Draw firm boundaries…and stick to them.
Work shouldn’t take over your entire life. Set cutoff days and times. For example, don’t read any emails after 8 p.m. Refuse to do work on Sundays. Stop working at least two hours before bedtime. Turn off your electronic devices at least one hour before you head off to sleep.
4. Take breaks and vacations.
You’ve heard this piece of advice before. But have you followed it? Taking breaks throughout the day and vacations throughout the year can prevent burnout and reduce your stress drastically. Knowing there’s a break on the horizon can make dealing with your day that much lighter.
In the short term, implementing these four tactics can help you feel better. By making enough changes over time, you might even be able to lengthen your lifespan. There’s simply no reason to allow stress to dominate your life and age your body ahead of schedule.
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