Are you stressed out? If you are, you’re not alone. According to a 2010 American Psychological Association survey, one-third of American parents are extremely stressed and the majority of Americans are moderately stressed.
Many experience on-going stress from financial need, work demands and the pressures of family life. The challenge of managing stress with healthy habits, such as exercise, less worry, or better eating can leave us worried about the impact stress is having on our health. However, Howard S. Friedman PhD suggests that when it comes to your health and how long you live, stress is not necessarily all bad.
Stress is a key variable in living a long and healthy life, says Friedman, co-author of The Longevity Project– a compilation of findings from an eight-decade research project attempting to answer the question who lives the longest and why. But it turns out, not all stress is unhealthy.
Chronic and repetitive stressors do exact a physical toll. Imagine you are driving a sick child to an emergency room. You wouldn’t stop to top off the tank along the way and you certainly wouldn’t top off the washer fluid or stop for an oil change. Similarly, if your body is always stressed out and in a state of emergency, it’s unable to take care of longer-term needs.
Chronic stress that keeps your body in a prolonged state of emergency can contribute to a wide range of health problems. It can cause you to tire more quickly, may accelerate aging of the brain, can result in losses of cognitive functioning and impairments in memory. Prolonged stress plays a role in the development of a number of diseases, including diabetes, obesity and hypertension and repetitive stress has an impact on mood, anxiety disorders, chronic pain and the ability to control food intake.
But, according to Friedman, the long-term evidence suggests that eliminating stress from our lives, say by retiring early, avoiding life challenges or slowing down is not necessarily as critical to living a long and healthy life as we might think. In fact, eliminating stressful life experiences may even worsen our health and shorten our lives.
In his research, Friedman found that hard work, social challenges and demanding careers were linked to greater health and longer life. Those who worked the hardest, lived the longest. Stress can motivate important and healthful behaviors. Stress about an important work project can motivate you to accomplish difficult tasks. Stress about a friend’s illness can motivate you to care for that friend. Both of these activities can increase your sense of life’s meaning and strengthen your relationships with others.
The difference between experiencing chronic stress that contributes to health problems and experiencing life’s challenges in ways that improve health and lead to longer life is complex. However, Friedman suggests that certain patterns of behavior and action are linked to healthier and longer life.
In the December, 2011 Monitor on Psychology, Friedman identifies three factors that contribute to healthy stress:
Responsible and successful achievement: Examples of responsible behavior include carefully considering life choices, conscientious action, engaging in work that is personally meaningful and prioritizing friendships and relationships.
Prudent persistence: Persistence, Friedman found, is one of the best predictors of health and long life. Prudent persistence might include thoughtful planning and investing in your career, relationships and a stable family life. Prudent is the key word here. Friedman is, of course, not talking about persisting in such problem behaviors as gambling, over eating or excessive drinking. Creating stable relationships and family life seem to be linked to health and long life. Prudent persistence, then, would involve persistence towards positive life goals.
Stress management strategies: Healthy eating, adequate sleep, exercise and other healthy lifestyle behaviors do play a role in promoting physical well-being. These behaviors are important, but the people he studied that lived the longest and healthiest were those that had strong social ties and work in which they were invested.
Although we might all fantasize about living a stress-free life–maybe somewhere on warm beach with no financial worries or work pressures–getting rid of all stress is not linked with a long and healthy life. Regularly experiencing stress that comes from the challenges of hard work and sustaining close relationships is linked to health and longer life.
Friedman suggests that you throw away to-do lists and stop focusing on minutia, when it comes to living a more healthful life. Stressed parents may do better to explore options for work they believe in, than to try to get rid of the demands and pressures in their lives. Focusing on meaningful work, conscientious living and helping and caring for others in small, everyday actions is more likely to lead to health and long-life.
Stressed out man photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 1 Mar 2012