Several years ago, psychologist Elissa Epel posed an interesting question to her much-honored colleague, biologist Elizabeth Blackburn: “Why do people under stress tend to look haggard?” Replied Blackburn: "I have no idea. Let's find out."
Finding the fountain of youth?
Epel was especially interested in collaborating with Blackburn, because in the 1970s, Blackburn had discovered the unique structure of telomeres, a small DNA cap, which, like the ends of shoelaces, protects the ends of chromosomes; and she had identified telomerase, the enzyme that repairs the telomeres. Not only does telomerase play a key role in aging, cells without it will eventually die. And even low levels can cause havoc; for instance, when it’s low in white blood cells, it’s linked with six major risk factors for heart disease.
Stress and longevity
So what do telomeres have to do with looking burned out when under stress? To find out, Blackburn and Epel put together a pioneering study with a group of mothers who were the caregivers for severely disabled children with a chronic illness. Clearly, this is a role that is known to cause severe stress. Throughout the study, the mothers filled out questionnaires, asking them to rate on a three-point scale how stressed they felt each day, and the degree to which their lives felt out of control. What emerged was this: the women who perceived they were under heavy stress had shorter, damaged telomeres compared with those who felt less stress. As a matter of fact, some women who reported feeling less intense stress—despite raising a disabled child—had more normal-appearing telomeres.
This matters, because it tells us that ongoing, intense, chronic stress shortens telomeres and reduces telomerase. And when telomeres shorten, cells age and die more quickly. In turn, not only might you look more “haggard,” because telomeres play a key role in how long we live, your life gets shorter.
The key take-away message is this: It’s not always possible to change a stressful environment or situation, but it is quite possible to modify your response to such stressors. Two time-tested techniques that can help you do this are meditation and yoga.