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Got stress? 7 things you may not know about it

January 23, 2017

There’s been a lot of research about how chronic stress is bad for our hearts, brains and emotional health, contributes to obesity, and even shortens our lives because it accelerates the aging process.

The physiological response to stress goes like this: When confronted with danger (like when our forebears encountered a wooly mammoth), our bodies flood with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that elevate our heart rate, increase our blood pressure and boost our energy, prepping us for “fight or flight.”

While we’re unlikely to be attacked by a wooly mammoth today, we do face challenges—like caring for elderly parents, a sucky job or the ascension of an unqualified President to the throne—that can make our bodies react the same way. And when this natural alarm system gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, it takes its toll.

You’re likely aware of how stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and spending time in nature can help. But here’s some other information about dealing with stress you may have missed:

Wives become less stressed when their husbands die

This may not come as a surprise to some women, but a University of Padova study published last year found that while men suffer negative health consequences when their wife dies—because they rely more heavily on their spouse—widows appear to get healthier, suffering less stress and frailty than women whose husbands are still alive. I don’t recommend offing one’s husband as a stress management technique, but hey, if he goes first, there is this potential upside (especially since women generally live longer than men).

Too-intense exercise increases stress hormone production

Studies have shown that moderate- to high-intensity exercise triggers increases in cortisol levels in the blood, while low-intensity exercise actually reduces circulating cortisol levels. Slackers can now reframe their aversion to exertion as a stress management technique.

Stress doesn’t always cause aggressive behavior in men

In the late 1990s, some scientists began to argue that women show a more nurturing “tend-and-befriend” reaction to stress, while men were assumed to still take the fight-or-flight approach and become aggressive when stressed. German researchers have now refuted this long-held doctrine, demonstrating that male subjects under stress showed significantly more positive social behavior than control subjects who weren’t in a stressful situation. Granted, the stressful situation the researchers created related to public speaking. I’d wager the same guys might be a bit less “positive” if faced with a wooly mammoth.

“Goldilocks” stress is the ideal

Too little stress can lead to boredom and depression (see next item, below), and too much can cause anxiety and health problems. But the just-right amount of acute stress tunes up the brain and improves performance and health, according to researchers at UC Berkeley. In studies on rats, they found significant but brief stressful events caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to grow into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rodents’ mental performance. So, like Goldilocks, we need to find that stress sweet spot to keep our brains alert. Would a rollercoaster ride or having a fender bender every couple of weeks work?

Retirement stress: It’s a thing

Is your hubs looking forward to kicking back in retirement? He should think again. According to an article in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, doing too little can be bad for his health once he stops working. Men need activities that structure their time and are meaningful to them, so they’re advised to take hobbies and interests to a more challenging level, volunteer, and learn new skills to stay mentally and socially engaged (not to mention prevent their spouses from going crazy, which is also important for men’s well-being).

Watching cat videos lowers stress

Watching cat videos is one of the most popular uses of the internet today. So a study published in Computers in Human Behavior that found this activity can boost energy levels and increase feelings of happiness isn’t just fluff. Limitations noted in the study, however, were that the sample consisted mainly of women and those with an affinity for cats. One of the researchers also noted that while cat videos may be helpful for people who like cats, those predisposed to, say, porcupines might get more of a kick out of watching porcupine videos. Ah, science.

Laughter remains one of the best stress relievers

A good laugh has both short- and long-term benefits when it comes to stress. In the here and now, a hearty laugh ignites then cools down your stress response, producing a nice, relaxed feeling. It also can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress. Longer term, it can boost your immune system by introducing positive thoughts that release neuropeptides that help fight stress.

A recent study at Loma Linda University had a group of healthy adults in their 60s and 70s watch funny videos while another group sat quietly without talking, reading or using their cellphones. After 20 minutes, participants gave saliva samples and took a short memory test. While both groups performed better after the break than before, those who viewed the funny videos performed more than twice as well in memory recall. And the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol.

The only hormones
I want less of at this age
are those stress hormones.

So chuckle up, fellow boomers (and folks of every age, for that matter). Gawd knows we need to find something to laugh about for the next four years.

Your thoughts? How do you handle stress? Have you found it easier to not let things bother you as you’ve gotten older? Please share…

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  • 18 thoughts on “Got stress? 7 things you may not know about it

    1. Haralee says:

      This is so comprehensive in stress that I am going to favorite some cat videos that make me laugh so I can click over quickly when needed! My IRL cats never act up when I need them. I like to do creative projects when stressed. Something that occupies my mind. My husband loves to go for a drive when he is stressed.

      1. Roxanne says:

        My IRL cats don’t act funny on command, either, Haralee. They’re good snugglers, though, and that’s stress-relieving. Doing something creative sounds like a good diversion, too (except I’m not very crafty so would likely get more stressed trying that!). And driving–I think I’m better off staying off the road when I’m stressed–but I do tend to fall asleep when I’m in the passenger’s seat…Thanks for your comment!

    2. Victor Carr says:

      STRESS – The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living shit out of someone.

      1. Roxanne says:

        Well, that explains it!

    3. I much prefer to laugh instead of cry especially these days! I found my stress reaching unmanageable during this election…or any time the name DT is mentioned within hearing! I don’t see it changing soon so I better start liking cat videos!

      1. Roxanne says:

        I totally understand, Rena–I feel the same way. The only saving grace for those of us who prefer to laugh is that DT and his clown car of cronies are giving us plenty of material. It’s rueful laughter for the most part, but it helps. A little.

    4. Beth says:

      I don’t know where to start. I understand the husband dies and there is less stress thing and I adore my husband. However, when he retired, oh lord, talk about stress.Beth

      1. Roxanne says:

        I hear you, Beth! My mother-in-law had a little framed saying (which I inherited) that says, “Retirement: Twice as much husband, half as much money.” 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

    5. margaret says:

      I have all kinds of little tricks to destress, but I do remember once, when nothing worked, I went down to the beach (I lived near the ocean) and screamed at the top of my lungs. Sore throat, but it worked!!

      Now, I laugh with my youngest daughter who is one of the funniest people I know…….

      1. Roxanne says:

        Sometimes, a scream like that is just what the doctor ordered! I’ve done it into a pillow before. But laughing with someone you love–priceless!

    6. My father didn’t need a study to convince him that widows were happy. I remember him commenting many times about widows who had been meek and unassuming while married blossoming into socialites after they became widows. It even happened with my nephew’s dogs. When the male died they were very concerned about Abby and she practically resorted to puppy behavior and took on a different personality. I like having confirmation that strenuous exercise is stressful. I get stressed just watching someone in such a state! Laughter is my go to activity for stress relief sans cat videos.

      1. Roxanne says:

        Love your dad’s observations about widows’ transformations, and yours that this phenomenon even extends to dogs–who knew? I’m with you on the exercise and stress thing (although I also get stressed knowing that NOT exercising can shave years off my life and compromise its quality, so it’s off to the treadmill I go–just not quite as strenuously, of course). And laughter–always! Thanks to you, I have even more of it in my life!

    7. I didn’t know that high intensity exercise can trigger stress hormones. That is interesting! Another reason to stick to yoga? 😉

      1. Roxanne says:

        Works for me! Thanks for commenting, Jennifer.

    8. A punch bag! Nothing like it – with Metallica, Guns and Roses or Green Day at full throttle while I punch the living hell out of it.

      And singing! Just joined a Pop choir and it feels SO GOOD after a singing class. Especially as I can’t sing a note and no one can stop me because the advert said ‘we welcome anyone’.

      1. Roxanne says:

        Ooh, Gilly–I love the idea of a punch bag (I’d be inclined to put a picture of a certain orange-faced elected official on it). And your new singing ‘career’ sounds like a blast! Love ‘seeing’ you here!

    9. I’m not sure whether or not I should do the cat video thing or get my husband to start eating more fried food… lol… What a great list! and worth the laugh that came with it!

      1. Roxanne says:

        I’d probably go with the cat videos…:-) Thanks for commenting, Dr. M!

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