Chronic Stress Causes Serious Damage — But Is It Reversible?
While feeling stressed out from time to time is to be expected (and healthy in many cases), prolonged periods of stress can lead to a surge in proinflammatory proteins called cytokines. In small doses, these proteins keep us healthy. But in excess, they do more harm than good and can predispose us to conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
They can be so damaging that Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., the founding director of the Yale Stress Center, estimates that anywhere between 25 and 40% of illnesses are directly stress-related.
The impact of chronic stress is also written in our cells. We're now pretty sure that chronic stress and inflammation reduce the length of telomeres—structures that protect DNA—and shorter telomeres are a sign of older biological age.
Reading about how stress expedites the aging process and contributes to disease is no fun—especially in the middle of a pandemic. But not all hope is lost: As researchers learn more about all the ways chronic stress harms the body, they're also finding that some of the damage can be mitigated, if not reversed, with relatively simple lifestyle tweaks.
Research on reversing the damage of chronic stress.
When Aoife O'Donovan, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California–San Francisco (UCSF), set out to study how stress affected cell aging, she expected to find a linear relationship. "Just like chronological aging only goes in one direction—you never get younger—we thought biological aging was the same," she says on a call with mbg.
So O'Donovan and her team were surprised to find that telomeres may be more resilient and dynamic than we give them credit for. "We can have situations that accelerate the aging of our cells—but then we can also stop those processes and maybe undo or partially reverse some of those effects," she explains.
Ongoing research continues to find that we may be able to lengthen telomeres through lifestyle changes—promising news for anyone who has ever gone through a prolonged period of stress, anxiety, or trauma.
4 ways to rebuild after a stressful period.
The four science-backed strategies for recovering from chronic stress are simple but by no means easy—especially if you're still in the middle of a stressful period. Eating well, sleeping well, exercising, and socializing are much more doable when things are going well, but Sinha says they require a lot of energy and attention during hard times.
"Survival mode is all about surviving at this moment, but recovery is about long-term thinking... We have to get out of that short-term thinking—but it's brutally difficult," O'Donovan reiterates, so giving yourself grace as you try to make these things a priority is key.
You also don't have to wait until stress hits to practice these healthy habits. As you build them up over time, you'll give yourself a buffer against stressful events in the future and the tools needed to more quickly recover moving forward:
1. Exercise regularly.
In one of the early studies on chronic stress and telomere length, O'Donovan and some of her colleagues at UCSF focused on the impact of physical activity.
The study asked 63 healthy postmenopausal women to record their levels of perceived stress and exercise. They found that those who experienced heightened stress and did not exercise were more likely to have shorter telomeres. In exercisers, perceived stress appeared to be unrelated to telomere length.
Longer-term follow-up research has also found a link between exercise and telomere length, causing O'Donovan to conclude that "physical activity is one of the most powerful resilience agents that we have."
2. Sleep well.
Sleep is our time to recover from the day—stressors and all. And without adequate rest (seven to nine hours a night in most people), research shows that telomere length tends to decrease (in men, at least). Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, seems to help us recover from some of the excess inflammation spurred by stress.
Unfortunately, sleep usually takes a hit during stressful periods. To help give your body the rest it needs, check out these sleep-psychologist-approved tips for falling asleep when the mind is racing.
3. Eat a healthy diet.
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4. Seek social support.
Finally, people who have larger social networks and feel fulfilled in their relationships tend to have lower levels of inflammatory proteins and be less at risk for biological aging. "Being socially integrated makes us feel more secure and safer," O'Donovan says. "Prioritizing those social interactions can really benefit our health."
On the other hand, lower socioeconomic position is tied to increased inflammation—which is why O'Donovan says the No. 1 thing we can do to ease the burden of chronic stress in society is to advocate for policy change.
The bottom line.
We've long known that exercising, sleeping well, eating well, and fostering a fulfilling social life can make us healthier and more resilient in the face of stressors. And now, research suggests they may even help us recover from chronic stress events that actively harm our health.