Whether from natural disasters, divisive politics, unmanageable workloads or a smartphone culture that makes it tough to unplug, U.S. adults are feeling more strain now than they have at any time in the past decade, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America Survey. One in three say their stress has increased in the past year and one in five rate the level at eight or more on a scale of one to 10. About three in five, or 59 percent, say they believe this is “the lowest point in the nation’s history” and nearly two-thirds say concerns about our nation’s future (including its healthcare, economy and international relations) are key sources of their stress.
“We’re seeing significant stress transcending party lines,” notes Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., the association’s chief executive officer.
All that stress is having a powerful impact on health, with as many as 80 percent of visits to primary care physicians characterized as stress-related, according to the American Medical Association. Workplace stress alone accounts for 120,000 deaths a year—more than influenza, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease combined—according to a 2015 Stanford University study.
Yet empowering news has emerged amid this epidemic of anxiety-related illness. Research shows that by eating right, exercising and changing our mindset about stress itself, we can buffer our bodies from much of its health hazards.
“Unfortunately, you can’t always avoid the things that stress you out. But you can control how you respond to stress before it takes over your life,” says Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., a Mill Valley, California, psychologist and author of the recent book The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity.
Our Brain on Stress
Whether it’s an urgent email from the boss or a rude motorist driving unsafely, tense situations elicit a physiological response remarkably similar to what might occur if we were chased by a lion. Deep inside an almond-shaped region of the brain called the amygdala, an alarm goes off, signaling the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that boost heart rate, usher extra blood to muscles, hasten breathing and spike blood sugar to provide more fuel for the brain to react.
Evolutionarily, this response was key to early human survival, providing the energy boost needed to flee predators. Even today, it has its upside, says Greenberg. “In the short term, stress can be exciting and even beneficial, revving you up so you can put your passion and energy into something.”
But chronic excess can lead to high blood pressure and blood sugar, inflammation, cognitive problems and a hair-trigger response to stress, in which our body overreacts even to mild annoyances. It can also, research suggests, accelerate aging by eroding the protective caps on our chromosomes, called telomeres.
“Think of the stress response as an elastic band,” says Dr. Mithu Storoni, a Hong Kong physician and author of the new book Stress Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body ─ and Be More Resilient Every Day. “If you pull it and it snaps back immediately, that’s fine. But if you pull it too intensely or too frequently, it doesn’t snap back, and there are lots of downstream consequences.