Is Stress Killing You? / by Anne Kreamer

Six hours ago my neighbor decided to steam-clean the façade of his house using an incredibly loud, dark-gray-fume-spewing generator. It's an otherwise gorgeous summer day, so all of my windows were open. And because in New York City, neighbors are only a few feet away, the machine is actually making the floor of my home office vibrate. The condensing steam soaked through several documents before I could shut the windows. Now I'm stuck in an airless, jack-hammering hell. I'm on deadline for work, I'm leaving town at dawn tomorrow while leaving an older child home alone and in charge. My feelings fluctuate between wanting to strangle the neighbor and wanting to burst into tears. I'm completely, overwhelmingly stressed out.   Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise.  The Huffington Post says New York is the second most stressful place to live in the country.   After uncovering an old Science section of the New York Times, I've now discovered that my stress is probably speeding me along to an earlier death.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a cell biologist and one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World," has been studying something called telomeres, which are the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes. As Claudia Dreifus of the Times explained it, "Chromosomes carry the genetic information. Telomeres are buffers. They are like the tips of shoelaces. If you lose the tips, the ends start fraying.  Telomerase is an enzyme. In cells, it restores the length of the telomeres when they get worn."

Okay, but what does that have to do with my stress? Dr. Blackburn and a psychologist, Dr. Elissa Epel, designed a study to assess whether psychological stress aged our cells. They studied two groups of women, one with healthy children and one with chronically sick kids. "With the stressed group, we found that the longer the mothers had been caring for their chronically ill child, the less their telomerase and the shorter their telomeres. This was the first time you could clearly see cause and effect from a nongenetic influence. "

Blackburn suggests that this is hard proof of the mind-body connection. Epel and she discovered that the women in the study who had bad lipid profiles and obesity -- measures that indicate cardiovascular disease -- also had reduced telemorase.

So as I was writing this piece I decided to take my current stress into my own hands. I've put earplugs in to drown out the hammering, and I'm leaving now to take a long walk far away from the pollution of the machine.

But Blackburn's research has made it even more clear to me that I need to develop a long-term approach to stress management. I've been meaning to start a meditation practice. Tonight I begin.

If you want to control your stress, here a few easy ideas:

  • walk outdoors
  • get a pet
  • practice mindful breathing
  • get a good set of earplugs
  • put flowers on your desk at work...
  • ...and smell them