Key parts of the stress response
The key players in the stress response are the autonomic nervous system (ANS), inflammatory cytokines and stress hormones.
The ANS provides balance through regulating its two opposing arms: a sympathetic nervous system that controls our responses to stress and a parasympathetic nervous system that controls relaxation. Too much sympathetic activation, as occurs with aging, means our response to stress is exaggerated. Reduced parasympathetic tone, associated with being overweight, inactive or lacking quality sleep, also augments the effects of stress.
A number of inflammatory cytokines – the signalling molecules of our immune systems – are released as part of our stress response. These sensitize our brains to further stress. Our levels of cytokines increase progressively with age. This increase is faster in people suffering from chronic stress, diabetes and obesity, who also age faster.
Cortisol is our major stress-response hormone. It acts to mobilize resources to protect and repair our bodies. For the same stress, older individuals tend to produce more cortisol, and this response persists for much longer, making any stress more damaging.
Become an optimist and slow aging
- Avoid cynicism and hostility
- Calm down – practice ways to be less reactive; if feeling angry, take a deep breath before responding
- Cultivate a positive tone in your communication, whether in your marriage or other relationships
- Laugh more – you may have to make a real effort here – watch comedy, make new funny friends, join a laughing club
- Get involved with your local community
- Sit up straight – slouching flags to your body and mind that you are feeling low
- Take big steps – walk quickly and purposefully, with your shoulders back and head up
- Smile more – do this on purpose – plan to smile to three new people each and every day
- Change your tone of voice so it is cheerful and full of energy
- Use more positive words – say “It’s a challenge” rather than “It’s a problem”