Our physical health and the quality of our lives are profoundly impacted by the state of our mind and emotions. Our thoughts and emotions can impact brain, endocrine, and immune system function. Whereas negative emotions, such as anger and stress, have been linked to physical problems such as cardiovascular disease (Suarez, 2004), positive emotions such as feeling happy and connected to others, are linked to many health benefits including better immune function and a longer life span (Berkman & Syme, 1979; Cacioppo, Hawkley, Crawford, et al. 2002; Pressman, Cohen, Miller, al.2005).
Acute stress is a life-saver, that’s its purpose, it’s probably the reason you’re alive today! We’re equipped with a stress response to get our body pumped to run out of the way of a speeding car or to avoid becoming lunch for a hungry lion. Acute stress mobilizes energy and sharpens our attention to act immediately in the face of danger.
In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr. Sapolsky, stress specialist at Stanford University, explains the difference between animals and humans is that animals only feel stressed for the very short (and necessary) amount of time before returning to a normal state (homeostasis) when danger disappears.
For humans, stress can be constant and chronic and it leads to immense wear-and-tear. When it is chronic, stress actually weakens our ability to focus, concentrate, and remember things; it impacts our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to getting sick, as shown by the work of Dr. Sheldon Cohen. It compromises our ability to regulate our emotions (just think how easy it is to fly off the handle or burst into tears when we’re stressed); it makes us self-centered (Eysenck, 1997) and less capable of connecting with others which is something we fundamentally need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Chronic stress can result in lowered resistance to disease, exhaustion, depression, cardiovascular disease, and harmful coping behaviors, such as excessive consumption of food, drugs, and alcohol. You may yourself have experienced a time when intense stress lead you to some of these behaviors.
Stress may even impact how we look and the length of our life! People spend hundreds of dollars a year investing in products to improve the tone of their skin and muscles. Attending to stress levels may be as important if not more so. Stress increases the aging process as shown by work by the 2009 Nobel Prize Winner in Biology Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn whose work has show how stress impacts “telomere” length – biomarkers of cellular aging.
Stress gets in the way of being happy, healthy, and maybe even pretty! This is a time and age when being stressed may appear normal but it does not have to be that way. So prioritize a new year’s resolution that involves making plenty of time for stress-relieving activities into your busy schedule. Activities such as yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, physical exercise, and time spent connecting with others have all been shown to reduce stress and improve well-being. A combination of them all may be best.
Another reason to beat stress? Positive emotions not only feel great, they help broaden your intellectual, social, physical and psychological resources – helping you think creatively and flexibly, connect with other people easily, feel resilient and optimistic, and gain coordination and physical health. For more info on this great research, read about the work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson.
There may have been a lot to the 80’s song by Bobby McFerrin…Don’t worry, be happy!

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