What some women can tell you about stress

We see the headlines all the time: “Stress makes you sick,” “Work makes you stressed,” “Stress makes you fat,” even “Stress Kills.” But why does all this happen? Why is stress so dangerous, and how do we know?

Luckily for us, there are a lot of outstanding neuroscientists, social scientists and others who are devoting their careers to answering these questions. Many of them are women, so in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would profile a few of them and the highlights from their work.

What socioemotional resources are available to us during stress and where do they originate?

Shelley E. Taylor is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. She is perhaps best known for the “Tend and Befriend” theory: the idea that our response to stressful situations is not always “fight or flight.” Sometimes primates, especially females, seek out social relationships to protect themselves and their offspring during stress. These “affiliative” behaviors may be mediated by the hormone oxytocin, or in men, vasopressin, which may act as a thermostat for social resources, triggering a hormone response when our social support goes too low.holding_hands1

How exactly does stress age us and why are we more likely to develop chronic diseases as we age?

It turns out that we have little caps on the ends of our chromosomes called “telomeres”. These are bit like the tips at the ends of our shoelaces. Just like shoelace tips, the telomeres stabilize the ends of the chromosomes and keep them from unraveling. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (along with Jack W. Szostak) won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how telomeres protect the chromosomes and how the enzyme telomerase maintains the length of the telomeres even as the cells divide. If we don’t have enough telomerase, and cells keep dividing as they do, eventually telomeres get so short that cells die — limiting years of healthy life. And guess what has an impact on telomerase — stress!image

How does that cell aging manifest itself physically and psychologically?

Elissa Epel of UCSF studies cell aging in people with major depression and those who suffer acute and chronic psychosocial stress. She has focused on the role of telomerase and the stress pathways that lead to early aging, overeating, abdominal obesity and immune responses. She is also involved with interventions using mindfulness and social support to help lower stress reactivity and improve emotion regulation.

How does social status impact our stress levels and their health consequences?

Carol Shively, of Wake Forest University, studies monkeys and other primates to explore how social stress might lead to depression and greater susceptibility to disease. She has found that animals who are lower on the social ladder for extended periods of time have twice as much hardening of the arteries as dominant animals. Other studies have shown similar patterns in humans.

Why do we want to eat comfort food during stress, and why do we gain fat around the abdomen?

Comfort foods and abdominal fat actually reduce stress and make us feel better. Mary Dallman, also at UCSF, studies the brain-pituitary-adrenal interrelationships and how chronic stress effects changes in energy balance. She has found that every type of cell in the body has receptors for glucocorticoids [stress hormones], which means that stress can potentially cause havoc everywhere. It also leads to an increase in the synthesis of fat and glucose, while protein synthesis declines, throwing off how we process the food we eat.

In spite of all this stress, how can we be happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, studies human happiness, what makes people happy, and how people can become happier. Her work shows that while we all have temperaments that make us more or less happy to begin with, a fairly significant percentage of our potential for happiness is open to change. Her research has found that generally happy people tend to interpret events in a positive way that supports their happiness, while chronically unhappy people tend to interpret the same events in ways that bolster their unhappiness. So she also studies how the thoughts and behaviors of the naturally happy people an be encouraged or taught to those who are less positive.

The takeaways from all of this work are 1) stress is toxic; 2) it affects all of us; and 3) there are ways to reduce its impact on our health. I’m grateful to these scientists, and so many others, for the intellect and passion they have devoted to this work. It has informed my teaching, inspired my writing and improved my personal wellness.



Be kind

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a harder battle,” says the Plato quote that is on the plate displayed in my kitchen. “Be kind…be kind…be kind…” Why is it so hard to keep that mantra in my head?

For instance, I’m always baffled by how quickly after finishing a yoga class I can sometimes be not nice to someone! Whether it’s swearing at another driver, or snapping at a store clerk, it seems that my mellow mood evaporates as soon as I walk out the door. Why is that?

Like compassion, kindness is easier when the recipient is someone we love, or someone vulnerable, or someone clearly suffering through no fault of his own. It is much more difficult to practice when the other person is a stranger, or someone unlikeable, or someone who has clearly done something wrong. Being kind in that situation requires a degree of mindfulness and intention that needs to be cultivated purposefully in most of us.

Emotions like anger or impatience are always preceded by a thought, if only for a split second. That’s the moment when we have a choice of how to respond to a situation. Too often, we get trapped by our notions of how things should be, and our “choice” of response is harsh and unkind. Strangely, though, we don’t usually feel better after yelling at someone, but we do have feelings of well-being after acting kindly.

Olpin and Hesson have developed a framework of “levels of responding.” At one end of the spectrum are attachment, rightness, judgment, blaming, resistance and complaining – responses that are usually not effective and result in negative emotions. At the other end are observation (noticing without judgment), discovery (seeking to learn and understand), acceptance and gratitude – responses that are more effective and result in positive emotions. Studies conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky  and others also show that people who practiced a variety of random acts of kindness experienced an increase in happiness.

It’s so easy to make every situation personal. Why did she do that to me? Why did that person cut me off? Why is he so mean to me? It might not have anything to do with me. It might be accidental, it might be that the person is having a bad day; it might be that the person is in pain. When we stop judging, stop personalizing, and start trying to understand, it becomes a lot easier to respond with kindness, or at least with acceptance.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” Plato’s reminder in my kitchen makes me realize that kindness is not something to master, but something to practice. Luckily, I meet someone every day who gives me the chance to do just that.