On Stress Resilience & Longevity

Stress Resilience & Longevity by Em Capito, LCSW, MBA, E-RYT

If we continually take a big picture look at the malleable precursors for aging-related symptoms and mortality, inflammation shows up over and over again…which leads us to resilience, or how we manage physical and mental stress.

“We overload, our heads start pounding for attention, our hearts get attacked for our lack of intimacy, and our vessels cause the doctor’s mercury gauge to warn us that things are getting too high. Even our bowels can get irritated with us and show their displeasure in their own unique language. Somewhere in our bodies…something is 
burning out.”

– Paul Pearsall, Psychologist & Author

Looking at longevity through the lens of resilience took me back to my first foray into mind-body medicine back in college. I still have that original textbook from 2005. In further apropos timing, I had picked up Peter Attia’s wonderful book, Outlive, which was just released in March.

Longevity can sometimes be oversimplified as a measure of our age, but none of us wants to keep living after we’ve lost our minds in the midst of endless suffering, no longer able to choose our own path forward.

Longevity really is the measure of lifespan and healthspan, which is dramatically intertwined with our emotional health, despite rarely being acknowledged.

That first textbook on psychoneuroimmunology took on the task of illustrating that relationship nearly two decades ago with peer reviewed clinical research that was decades in the making (if we break down that big word, it is simply the study of the mind, brain and immunity).

Despite this, the author of that latest bestseller on longevity has acknowledged that while he wished to place the chapter on emotional health first, the publisher insisted it be last, if included at all; an afterthought.

Our healthcare model is one of reactive intervention, long after there is much hope to course correct. We wait for an expensive, invasive battle at the end.

Due largely to unprecedented abundance, our culture is one of avoidance of hard realities, realities which could conversely be seen as empowering opportunities to live better, longer.

It can be difficult to accept that how we think and feel, and therefore how we behave, has more to do with our physical health outcomes than any other factor that we have control over.

While we have come a long way in saving lives in acute emergencies or from infectious disease, we have utterly failed to make any significant progress in addressing the causes of mortality that take their place in taking our lives: metabolic disease (predominantly presenting as pre-diabetes and later type-2 diabetes), heart disease and stroke, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s and dementia).

Did you know that there is extensive research on what personality types are most likely to develop and die from heart disease? Or from cancer? It’s not hard to guess.

Rigid, pressurized arteries are correlated with rigid, highly demanding, and often angry dispositions. And the quiet, deadly mutation of our own cells into cancer is more likely to occur in quiet, self-sacrificing stoics (the same people we complement for being “so strong for everyone else” in the midst of their own pain).

These logical pathway are unsettling, because it means that our opportunity to save our own lives from premature suffering and death lies in our own hands in the harder work of introspection, trauma healing, behavior change and lifestyle adjustments, rather than leaving this responsibility with a doctor, pill or surgery.

We want the easier path so badly, that as patients we reinforce a system that trains doctors to dole out prescriptions and cut out disease, rather than ask hard questions and work in concert with holistic health professionals.

As goes our emotional health, so goes our body.

Circling back to resilience, our ability to function and feel well exists on a bell curve, first illustrated by the Yerkes-Dodson law of human performance. Too little stress, and we withdraw into apathy and boredom. Too much stress, and we withdraw due to burnout and overwhelm.

Stress Resilience Window of Capacity Yerkes Dodson Curve

Overlay that bell curve with the window of tolerance initially coined by Dan Siegel, MD: a dynamic window that opens and closes based on many factors, such as how we slept or if we are grieving.

As we triage and actively care for our mind, body and soul, the window widens, meaning that we function and feel better across a wider range of stress levels. We are free to respond to our circumstances with a confident beginner’s mind.

We need stress. We need to feel engaged and stretched, but not to the point of breaking, in order to maintain a wide window.Not surprisingly, when I went looking for the data, the same bell curve holds true for longevity at a cellular level.

Anti-Aging Stress Resilience Window of Health & Longevity

When we are mentally and physically sedentary, our cells age rapidly. When we are chronically overstressed, our cells age rapidly.

Inflammation spreads. Telomeres shorten. DNA mutates. We break down, literally.

Modern longevity is rooted in proactively caring for our minds and bodies, and also actively stressing our cells, which is why exercise is the most effective lifelong intervention to ward off all causes of aging-related death.

This can feel like the harder path. It can be tempting to justify that we are fine because our annual physical does not result in a diagnosis (yet). We can choose to wait until that point, when it’s difficult or impossible to reverse the damage, and then wish we had slept a little more, eaten a little better, or stretched our mind to learn something new more often.

Or, we can embrace this call to adventure and seek a little intentional discomfort that inspires us.

Our minds and bodies love to be stretched, releasing endorphins, firing new neural pathways that spur creativity, and narrating all of it into meaning.

Even if it didn’t lead to a longer life, that present-moment feeling of deep engagement is compelling enough, becoming the momentum that transforms the once hard path into the joyous path.

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