These days, the fountain of youth seems to be right at our fingertips. Between the many “age-defying” products and services available – from alpha-hydroxy lotions to plastic surgery – and the advancements in medicine that keep our hearts beating healthily and our blood flowing smoothly, we have ample opportunities to either dip our toes, or dive head-first into these ageless waters.

Knowledge of aging (and anti-aging) elements gives us the power to be proactive in keeping ourselves young and vital. Knowing the damaging effects of the sun’s rays, we protect our skin with sunscreen and seek the shade when possible. We know the fatal effects of high cholesterol, so we make changes in our diet and faithfully take the medicine that our doctor prescribes. Knowledge gained from recent findings about the anti-inflammatory effects of certain foods inspires us to make more careful and conscious decisions when filling our refrigerators and pantries.

What about the aging effects of stress? If we knew the ways in which stress undermines our health and ages our bodies, would we be willing to take deliberate steps to manage the stress in our lives?

As it turns out, it’s no coincidence that we feel physically worn-out during mentally trying times in our lives. Chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure and worsens the symptoms of several medical conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and coronary artery disease. A study at the University of California at San Francisco also confirmed that chronically high stress levels actually physically age our bodies. Researchers discovered that chronic stress causes telomeres, tiny caps on cells’ chromosomes that govern cell regeneration, to get smaller. When the telomeres get too short, the cell stops dividing and ultimately dies. “These telomeres are one of the few biological markers of aging we have,” stated Judy Moskowitz, PhD, a psychologist at UCSF, who worked on this study.

The UCSF study found that people who perceive their stress levels to be high have shorter telomeres, and therefore older cells, than those that do not perceive a great level of stress in their lives. The key word here is “perceive.” What’s interesting is that it is not the actual amount of stress we carry in our lives, as much as the way we handle it that can dramatically affect the way our bodies age. Those that are able to manage the stress in their lives have younger cells than those that hold on to and internalize stress.

The good news is that with the knowledge that chronic stress can be an aging factor in our lives, we have the power to fight it – just as we may choose to fight wrinkles, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, or bone density loss. Obviously, we cannot completely cut stress out of our lives. We still have to endure the stress-filled times that are an inevitable part of many of our lives – deaths of loved ones, sickness, divorce, and job loss, to name a few. We can, however, take control over the way we manage stress. Instead of internalizing it, we can acknowledge it and choose to let it go.

Is this easier said than done? Perhaps it is. But if we’re willing to take medicine religiously, exercise regularly, or change our diet in order to keep our bodies young and healthy, then we should be eager to add de-stressing to our list of healthy habits.

How do we say so-long to stress when it comes into our lives? How can we acknowledge it, but then release it so that it does not take over our day? The answers to these questions are as different as the people that answer them. A round of golf or an hour of yoga might be able to take you away from the troubles of your day. Playing a card game or board game might give you the mental escape that you need to cope with stress. For some people, work –when it’s work that they’re passionate about – is actually a stress-relieving routine. For others, taking the time to chat with friends, whether talking-out their problems or talking about anything but their problems, is just what they need to feel relaxed.

How do you cope with stress?  Whatever your escape from stress may be, if you make it part of your healthy-habit routine, your body will surely thank you.

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