Stress is an increasingly pressing issue in modern society, with chronic stress levels elevating in general, and even for teenagers, climbing to rival those of adults. One reason why stress is such a widespread problem is because it is so intricately entwined in our everyday lives. Thus, it is not a momentary problem that can be tackled at the surface. This is because stress is not only influenced by our environment; it is also affected by our genetics, diet, and early childhood experiences. Elissa Epel, PhD, who directs the Center of Aging, Metabolism and Emotion at the University of California, San Francisco, studies the adverse effects of chronic stress.
One genetic element linked to stress is telomeres. Telomeres are a type of chromosome component that provide a protective casing for our DNA. Telomeres are lost each time a cell divides. Fortunately, we also have telomerase, its respective enzyme, to regularly replenish our supply and thus keep our cells healthy.
Telomere length, primarily affected by our natural aging process and genetics, is also affected by stress. Shorter telomere length is correlated with age-related diseases and psychiatric disorders including depression. The type of stress experienced by an individual determines the magnitude of the effect it has on telomere length. At times of great stress, our telomeres decrease in length, overriding the normal progressive aging process. This can begin even before conception. When a baby is inside the mother’s uterus, the child’s health is dependent on the mother’s current physical health. Thus this is a critical time period for influencing a child’s cellular aging process. Past studies have found significant correlations between the mental health of the mother with a baby’s telomere’s length – the higher a mother’s prenatal anxiety and stress, the shorter the baby’s telomeres. Therefore, not only do pregnant women have to be mindful of the impact of stress on their own lives, they also need to be aware of risk transmission across generations.
After birth, during early childhood, is another critical period of development for telomere length. At this early age, the child’s development is still very flexible, making the child especially prone to adverse influences (e.g. parental neglect, exposure to violence and abuse). Such negative effects can lead to persistent shortened telomere lengths, tracking through into adulthood. In order to avoid this, parents should focus on buffering negative effects by providing children with high quality parenting in a warm and interactive social environment.In adulthood, chronic stress affects our daily routines and perceptions of the world. Greater stress may lead us to turn toward “stress eating”, increasing our intake of comfort and otherwise unhealthy foods. Doing so can impair and dampen our impulse control. This in turn makes us prone to addictive tendencies. Studies have investigated the negative additive effects of high stress with diets high in junk foods. The findings show this leads to higher levels of neuropeptide Y (NPY), a chemical that triggers fat cells to mature and fill up quickly. Although pharmacological treatments may temporarily reduce adverse outcomes, one has to target the problem at its source. This can be done by developing adaptive stress reduction interventions to change an individual’s perceptions of and reactions to the world.Dr. Epel is currently working on interventions to physically reverse the effects of stress. She is teaching people ways to take a mindful, calm and optimistic approach when perceiving events around them. One intervention is directed toward overweight pregnant women. The program takes advantage of their increased motivation while they are pregnant to do what is best for their baby, namely to stay physically and mentally healthy in order to guarantee the health of their child. The intervention involves classes on mindful eating, mindfulness techniques for stress reduction, and preventative measures for excess weight gain during pregnancy. Another project makes use of well-documented results from aerobic exercise, namely, decreases in excessive oxidative stress and cortisol. This appears to be a powerful buffer to the stress-telomerase relationship in sedentary young adults.Dr. Epel has also established a nonprofit group within the university. There she educates the public on telomeres and provides tests to measure telomere length at a low cost. The consequences of people finding out the length of their telomeres may motivate them to develop a healthy lifestyle.In conclusion, remember that stress originates from how one perceives an event, and no situation is truly forever chronic. If you think something is stressful, you are going to be stressed. Being proactive, empowering yourself to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle, coupled with regular exercise and quality sleep can sufficiently buffer oneself against the adverse effects of stress. These findings suggest that The Pacific Institute’s emphasis on Bandura’s ways of increasing self-efficacy and Seligman’s method for teaching of learned optimism are well placed.
Blackburn, E., Epel, E. (2012). Psychological stress and telomeres. Nature, 490(7419), 169-171.
Entringer, s., Epel, E.S., Kumsta, R., Lin, J., Hellhammer, D. H., Blackburn, E. H., … Wadhwa, P. D. (2011). Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(33), E513-E518.
Epel, E. S., Blackburn, E. H., Lin, J., Dhadhar, F. S., Adler, N. E., Morrow, J. B., & Cawthon, R. M. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(49), 17312-17315.
Puterman, E., & Epel, E. (2012). An intricate dance: Life experience, multisystem resiliency, and rate of telomere decline throughout the lifespan.Social Psychology Compass, 6(11), 807-825.