Chronic stress is hazardous to health and can lead to early death from heart disease, cancer and other health problems. But it turns out it doesn't matter whether the stress comes from major events in life or from minor problems. Both can be deadly.
And it may be that it's not the stress from major life events like divorce, illness and job loss trickled down to everyday life that gets you; it's how you react to the smaller, everyday stress.
The most stressed-out people have the highest risk of premature death, according to one study that followed 1,293 men for years.
"People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn't find daily life very stressful," according to Carolyn Aldwin. She directs the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University and led the study, which is scheduled for publication in the journal Experimental Gerontology.
Some people get frantic sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, worried about being late or not being able to do what they hoped in a timely manner. Others simply take the time to sit back, listen to music and appreciate the break as some quiet time.
Now, getting upset in traffic once is no big deal. But if things like that happen all the time and the response is always getting really upset, then the harmful effects of stress can become toxic.
"There are a number of ways chronic stress can kill you," says Aldwin. That includes increased levels of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease.
If you are one of those chronically upset worriers, Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, has a prescription for you: exercise.
"If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, mood, reduce weight," this would be it, Waldinger says. Federal health officials recommend 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every day.
When it comes to fighting stress, Waldinger says, that's enough. "When they do studies particularly of the mood benefit, they find that more than 30 minutes a day is not necessary — you don't get any boost. So if you think just in terms of stress relief and antidepressant effect, 30 minutes is enough."
Another option would be to add meditation to your daily routine. For many people, that can make a big difference, Waldinger says, "because what you do is watch your mind spin out anxiously over trivia, and eventually it settles down and you begin to have more perspective."
Breathing may be the simplest and most immediate fix, Aldwin says. "Take a step back when you feel yourself getting upset, step back psychologically and even physically," she recommends. "And then watch your breathing; people who get upset a lot breathe very rapidly and shallowly, and it creates more anxiety." Breathing slowly from the abdomen helps slow the stress response, she says.
And finally, Waldinger says here's something not to do: Don't overdo alcohol. "It feels in the moment like having that extra drink at night eliminates stress because it relaxes you, but it turns out that alcohol disturbs sleep." And it also acts as a depressant.
Some stress is inevitable for everyone, Waldinger says. But stress-related disease doesn't have to be.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, in Your Health, we look into the brains of extraordinarily altruistic people.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
First, we look at the health effects of chronic stress. We already know stress can cause heart disease, cancer and more. What's new here is the type of stress that can affect you.
INSKEEP: It's not just the stress of some major, life change. You can also be affected by how you handle the day-to-day stress of living. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATRICIA NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Divorce, illness, job loss - the stress of these big events researchers thought would trickle down to everyday life, and make the smaller stuff - day-to-day chores, commuting, house repairs - more stressful, too.
CAROLYN ALDWIN: We were completely wrong.
NEIGHMOND: Psychologist Carolyn Aldwin.
ALDWIN: Both life events and hassles affect mortality, but they're independent.
NEIGHMOND: Aldwin directs the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University. She used data from a huge, long-term study of male veterans enrolled in the VA health care system. She focused in on older men - average age 65 - who said they suffered stress. She found it didn't matter whether it was caused by a major life event or by day-to-day problems. The harmful effect was the same. These stressed-out men had a 32 percent increased risk of dying.
ALDWIN: As a matter of fact the people who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die than people who rolled with the punches and didn't find their daily life very stressful.
NEIGHMOND: And Aldwin said it didn't matter how many stressful events the men faced, it was how they dealt with them that made the difference.
ALDWIN: Do you take the time in traffic to sit there and look at your watch and get really upset, and say, oh, my God I'm late? Or do you kick back and listen to NPR and just say I'm really enjoying this, you know, it's my quiet time?
NEIGHMOND: Now, getting upset in traffic isn't an earth shattering event. But if things like that happen all the time, and the response is always getting really upset, then Aldwin says the harmful effects of stress take hold and can become toxic.
ALDWIN: Stress increases cortisol levels, which in the short term can be really good. But in the long term can impair the immune system's ability to respond to cancer, it increases cholesterol levels in the blood and the stickiness of the cholesterol in the blood. So you're more likely to get clogged arteries.
NEIGHMOND: So what's a middle-aged man - prone to lots of worry - to do? Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger poses this question.
ROBERT WALDINGER: If you could give one magic pill that would improve physical health, improve mood, reduce weight - what would that magic drug be?
NEIGHMOND: You probably know the answer.
NEIGHMOND: Federal health officials recommended 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every day. And Waldinger says when it comes to fighting stress that's enough.
WALDINGER: When they do studies particularly of the mood benefit they find is that more than 30 minutes a day is not necessary, you don't get any extra boost, so if you think just about stress relief and antidepressant effect, 30 minutes is enough.
NEIGHMOND: Think about adding meditation, he says, to your daily routine. For many people that can make a big difference.
WALDINGER: Because what you do is you watch your mind to spin out anxiously over trivia and eventually it settles down. And eventually you begin to have more perspective that it really doesn't matter if you arrive a little bit late for that dinner party.
NEIGHMOND: And Waldinger says some men can benefit from seeing a therapist to get to the root of why the small stuff makes them so upset. In the meantime, Oregon State University psychologist Carolyn Aldwin suggests an easy technique that can help people calm down.
ALDWIN: When you feel yourself getting upset just step back psychologically or even physically. The second thing you want to do is watch your breathing. People who get upset a lot breathe very rapidly and very shallowly, and it actually creates more anxiety.
NEIGHMOND: So breathe slowly, calmly, she says, from your abdomen if possible. It works to slow the stress response. And finally Harvard psychiatrist Waldinger says here's something not to do - don't overdo alcohol.
WALDINGER: It feels in the moment like having that extra drink at night eliminates stress because it relaxes you, but it turns out that it disturbs sleep - alcohol does. That alcohol over the long-term is a depressant.
NEIGHMOND: Some stress is inevitable for everyone, he says, but stress-related disease is not. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.