Longevity: Reducing Stress

Read an excerpt from Dr. Robert Butler’s new book The Longevity Prescription, discussing how stress reduction is key for a long and healthy life. Dr. Butler has been called "The Father of Geriatrics" and is the founder of the National Institute on Aging (a part of the NIH) and the International Longevity Center at Columbia University. To purchase your copy of The Longevity Prescription, click here.

Posted on | By Dr. Robert Butler

Change Your Thinking About the Importance of Stress

Your thoughts play a crucial role in stress management. The brain is a key activator that, at both conscious and unconscious levels, disposes us to disease or tilts us toward health. The consequence of too much stress is wear and tear on the body. That in turn can play a role in the development of such conditions as obesity, type-2 diabetes, brain atrophy, heart disease, loss of sexual function, high blood pressure, loss of muscle and bone strength, suppression of the boy's immune system, and depression. In many ways, de-stressing is as important as diet and exercise. The goal here is to reduce stressors in your life for health and longevity.

  1. I suggest you approach de-stressing this way:
  2. Think about a computer that's overwhelmed by too many complex tasks at once; it will crash.
  3. Think about you under stress: Don't you feel as if your effectiveness has frozen up, too?
  4. Find ways to reboot.

Stress Reducers

 Here are some different ways of thinking about our life.

  • Find quietude. The human body is better able to counter or reduce the ravages of excess stress if you find the opportunity to escape the tension for a time. Exercise seems to be doubly effective in reducing stress when it is paired with such relaxation techniques as deep breathing, self-hypnosis, yoga, meditation. While training sessions, books, and other forms of guidance are available to help body, but an engagement with family, friends, and community can be life enhancing for the very old, the old, or those of us wondering at the impact of aging.

    Borrowing from the life facts of Kirk Douglas's career, think of your life you master specific techniques, you may already know how to find the calm you need. Once you identify it, take regular recourse to your personal place of escape.

  • Set limits. Establish reasonable limits for work or other commitments; you cannot do it all. At the same time, allow for opportunities to pursue your own pleasures.
  • Reframe. Look at your life through a different window. More than a few of the pressures you feel weighing on you are self-generated; rearranging your priorities may shift the burden. At times are you, metaphorically speaking, trying to move an object you know full well to be immovable? If you can't move the cliff face, perhaps you can find a boulder to roll? Try to step back from the noise and clutter and look at things from another angle. You can find elements to change or eliminate that are not necessary and that are not making your life better.
  • Do not insist on perfection. Recognize that perfection is not always a reasonable or desirable goal either for you or those around you.
  • Keep a journal. This may be news to you, but, according to several recent studies, putting your thoughts and feelings on paper is good for you. People with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis have been found to experience a lessening in symptoms when they write about their stress; another study found measurable decreases of stress hormones and fewer doctor visits among journalers. You may not be able to make your frustrations go away, but thinking them through and confiding them to a diary delivers benefits. You do not have to worry about getting a grade; there are no minimums or maximums. One common approach is putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) for fifteen minutes, say, three times a week. Get it off your chest. Today's problems, yesterday's complaints, long-ago torments, and tomorrow's worries are all fair game. You may find opportunities for change, but even if you do not, understanding and accepting are in themselves  healthful.
  • Skip the caffeine. Less caffeine means less stimulation of your central nervous system. Keep in mind that caffeine is found in a number of products, including coffee, cola, chocolate, some teas, and many over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements. There are many people who swear by herbal teas such as ginseng and chamomile, but avoid teas that are billed as energizers, such as those containing ephedra.
  • Relinquish control. As a control person, you know who you are.
  • Listen to music. Loud, up-tempo music may not be the way to go, but that does not mean you have to settle for elevator music. You know what sort of music gives you a sense of ease. Let it take you for a ride--to someplace other than the "I must, I can't, I'm late, Oh, no!" world of the overstressed.
  • Get enough sleep. For most people, that should mean seven to eight hours a night.
  • Reduce multitasking. One of the great stress-inducers of modern times is the common compulsion to work, communicate (cell phone, text, e-mail), and manage your life all at once. You will be more efficient--and less stressed--if you segregate times and tasks.
  • Do not underestimate Mother Nature. For many people, contact with the natural world has a restorative effect. Some report a new equilibrium after a walk in the woods, a few minutes spent observing birds at a feeder, or time spent watching a moonrise or a sunset. The natural world has a pace (the wind in the trees, the rolling of the waves, the soaring of a hawk in the thermals) that can remind us life does not have to be lived in a rush.
  • Keep flowers around. A study at Kansas State University gave ninety women a five-minute typing assignment; researchers found that those who worked with a bouquet of flowers at hand outperformed those with no flowers.
  • Reschedule. Do not panic if your progress is slower than you wanted it to be. Stop, take a break to give you distance, then make a new plan and set a new end point.
  • Learn to negotiate. Soften your hard stands--especially with yourself.
  • Pursue a favorite hobby. Find the time to do what gives you pleasure and takes you out of the fast lane.
  • Change the tone. Jumping out of bed to face the day is the right strategy for some; for others, though, a more gradual wake-up can set a less stressful tone. Instead of a jangling alarm, buy an inexpensive clock radio that will awaken you with music. Stretch before rising: Starting at your toes, flex all your muscles, working upward. You are looking to find an alignment, of sorts, that balances your mental, physical, and emotional life.
  • Simplify. We do not crave chaos; on the contrary, most of us like a sense of control over our lives. Yet in our consumer society, objects accumulate around us: unanswered mail, yesterday's newspaper, gifts, collections, clothes, leftover bits of this and that. Begin by identifying everything on your kitchen counters, desk, entry hall, coffee table, and sideboard that you have not used in the last, say, six months. Sell, give, and trash at least half the items. Move the items you cannot part with to another place (a closet or a cupboard). Go through the ritual again every month. Friends will appreciate your kindness. You may get a few tax deductions. Your house will look less cluttered. And you will feel less stressed and more in control of your life.
  • Share your fears. I promise you: You are not alone. Even in a time personal crisis--a death in the family, a lost job, divorce--there is someone out there to confide in. Tell a friend or relative of your fears and feelings; if they seem too private to share with someone in your life, consult a psychotherapist. Many people find putting their worries down on paper (in a diary or a letter, for example) can help. Sometimes having written it down is enough; for some then tearing it up offers a sense of liberation. Do not just keep it in; find a way that works for you to let the feelings out.
  • Visualize. You can use your mind, at no cost and with no equipment, to escape into your imagination. Relax, close your eyes, and think of a favorite spot: a sandy beach, a mountaintop, a remembered place from childhood where the warmth of happiness and security pervades. If you can explore the sounds, smells, and qualities of that recollection, you will find yourself in the moment in the best sense.

Reprinted from The Longevity Prescription by Dr. Robert Butler with Arrangement by Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2010.

Article written by Dr. Robert Butler
Dr. Butler has been called "The Father of Geriatrics" and is the founder of the National Institute on Aging (a part of the NIH)...