It’s April. Which means spring! And Stress Awareness Month. AND snow? Ugh. Something to stress about?
Here’s a revelation, from an expert worrier: there’s ALWAYS something to stress about.
While researching this blog about stress, and our bodies’ response to it, I came across an interesting observation from healthcoachfx.com. “. . . our human DNA only changes 0.1% every 10,000 years. We haven’t been able to genetically adapt to the circumstances we’ve created since the industrial revolution.”
The writer was making the point about how our bodies were wired thousands of years ago to survive the African wilderness. In response to stress, what we now call the HPA-axis (a complicated set of relationships and signals between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenals) gets activated, causing the quick release of cortisol and adrenaline into the body. These hormones make the lungs pump oxygen into the blood stream, raising the heartbeat and blood pressure, providing the energy needed for escape. It’s called fight-or-flight and it’s a pretty slick system. For fleeing lions.
So, I shared the DNA stat with my husband B, who’s always there to bounce blog ideas off of. He got a thoughtful, skeptical look on his face and said something like, “Well, that’s hogwash. I thought DNA changed all the time. What about the studies on astronauts who go into space? Doesn’t that change their DNA?”
Googling “changes to DNA”, nature.com tells me, “DNA is constantly changing through the process of mutation. Depending on how a particular mutation modifies an organism’s genetic makeup, it can prove harmless, helpful, or even hurtful.”
Harmless or helpful is fine. Hurtful? Well, just another thing on a long list to stress about. And did you know that telomeres – those caps protecting the end of each strand of DNA, compared by scientists to plastic tips at the end of shoelaces – get shorter as you age, leaving your DNA vulnerable to hurtful mutations? Oh geez. Before you panic, zip into fight-or-flight mode over that, take note of what draxe.com says is the numero uno way to lengthen your telomeres and slow aging: control and reduce stress.
Phew. Okay. So how do we do that?
Exercise! I know. Being a Jazzercise fitness instructor, I’m always talking, blah-blah-blah, about moving that body, but all of my research keeps promoting it too. Says carleton.ca Healthy Workplace, “Physical activity increases your body’s ability to manage stress by improving your flexibility and physicality, and balancing hormones linked to stress – adrenaline, cortisol, and endorphins.”
Back to the telomeres? Says draxe.com, “. . . the more a person exercised, the longer their telomeres. The correlation between telomere length and exercise activity seemed to be strongest among those in middle age, suggesting that it’s never too late to start a fitness program and keep those telomeres from shortening.”
Hear that? “never too late”! Whoa. That just takes a whole lot of stress off, huh? Knowing you can just jump up, go for a walk, run, bicycle ride, session at the gym, Jazzercise class, and BAM. You’ll be able to practically feel those plastic tips stretching out while clamping on for dear life. Ah.
Okay. I want to quickly get back to our innate response to stress, whether it’s outdated or not. Why? Well, in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari postulates that we might have been better off if the agricultural revolution never happened, which in turn would have negated the industrial revolution. Consequently, the population wouldn’t have been able to reach the current numbers stinking up the planet. Harari fantasizes that the humans remaining would go about their simple days relatively stress-free. Men hunt, women gather, fight-or-flight kicks in when the lion appears and everyone lives happily ever after.
Guess what? I also read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book, The Harmless People. For years, Thomas’s family studied the Bushmen in Africa, of whom very few remain. Having eschewed progress for as long as possible, they are fascinating to observe because they represent what we were thousands of years ago: hunter-gatherers. They are intelligent, speak complicated languages comprised of a lot of “clicks” difficult for us to copy, and predominantly “harmless”, as Thomas suggests in the title. Were they without stress? Beyond the physical, such as running from the lion? I would say, resoundingly, no.
Sure. They got by just fine without money, and the stress that accompanies it. And their vast knowledge of nature, and the land they roamed, was phenomenal. Mental stresses I noted? Profound jealousies. Worries about food, water, health of loved ones, threats from outside familial groups. In many ways they’re not that much different from us, just isolated, with simpler needs, so I suppose obliviously content. And perhaps all of that running around in the bush helped them deal with their non-physical stresses?
We can’t go back, of course, but that fight-or-flight response our maker gave us to flee the lion seems to work exactly the same, despite evolution of our DNA, even when there is no lion to run from. Gum it up with the myriad worries of the modern age and then don’t give it an outlet, a physical release, like exercise? Then you leave yourself prone to such things as frayed telomeres, insomnia, fluctuating hormones, skin and heart problems, immune and digestive system issues, depression.
Some other ways to manage stress? Adopt a diet rich in antioxidant foods. Practice yoga and meditation. Not only does this encourage you to breathe (deeply), but through yoga and meditation you have an opportunity to observe your behaviour, thereby identifying stressors and adjusting your response to them. Socializing with family and friends is a great way to relieve stress, as well as pursuing hobbies you enjoy, like reading, scrapbooking, or listening to music.
And? Don’t forget to laugh. It’s truly the best medicine. If you haven’t guffawed lately, here’s Ellen’s response to a recent study that concluded young adults spend more than six hours per day feeling “stressed out”. https://www.ellentube.com/video/dear-millennials-it-gets-better.html