We all know the importance of stress management, especially when life gets overwhelming. But did you know that taming your stress might also keep your body young?

Stress can feel pretty lousy: tight, achy muscles, a clenched jaw, a painful stomach, exhaustion, headache, and racing heart are but a few symptoms that come to mind.

Put simply, stress is our body’s reaction to a changing and challenging situation.  

Stress carries with it an overwhelmingly negative connotation, but there is perhaps a different way to think about stress.

But first, what actually is stress?  In reality, the uncomfortable experience of stress is less about the change itself, and more about how we perceive our ability to handle the changes that come our way.

For example, two people can experience the exact same stressful event - say, meeting a tough work deadline - yet react quite differently to it.  

While both could feel stressed prepping for the deadline, one person might work productively with the confidence in her capacity to get good results, whereas a second person may become paralyzed with worry, thwarting any work efforts by doubting his potential to do well.

One of life’s truths is that change occurs all the time. How we handle these changes is what helps to determine our outcomes.

The four types of stress

Researchers who study stress have identified four different types we most commonly experience: acute stress, episodic acute stress, chronic stress, and eustress.

Acute stress is the most common, and is the body’s instant biological reaction to a sudden  demand or challenge. Acute stress is what triggers our fight-or-flight response, commonly  accompanied by a racing heart, increased blood pressure, and heavy breathing, and generally lasts for a short period of time. That is, it comes on quickly and subsides quickly. A jump scare at a haunted house, a near-miss car accident, riding a roller coaster, or a tense argument can all bring about acute stress, making us feel anxious, angry, irritable, or even depressed.

When acute stress happens often, we experience episodic acute stress. This type of stress is felt when a series of stressful events occurs one behind the other, like working in a job with continuous demands or taking on caregiving duties for a loved one with frequent challenges. Living with episodic acute stress can lead to feeling irritable, anxious, and short-tempered.

Chronic stress is what we experience when acute stress is not resolved and increases or endures for a long time. Living in poverty, in an unhappy marriage, or within a dysfunctional family are each long-term exposures to stressors that can lead to chronic stress. Stress that becomes chronic can lead to inflammation in the body, and evidence shows that chronic inflammation is closely linked to the development of chronic disease. In fact, one 2017 study suggests that a big contributor to disease can be attributed to stress and its resultant inflammation.

Stress no doubt gets a bad rap, but is it possible that stress can actually offer positive effects to your life? It appears so. Positive stress, also known as eustress, is linked with feelings of excitement, anticipation, and eagerness. It is what you feel when you are about to start a new job or embark on a major renovation project. While still often accompanied by a pounding heart, eustress encourages positive growth, motivating you to keep going and meet your challenges head on.

Can negative stress in our social life contribute to aging?

It makes sense that having a solid network of support with close family and friends can enhance our lives in a multitude of ways.

So could the opposite be true?  Could a lack of social support be a good predictor of stress, and even contribute to a higher rate of aging?

One 2020 study set out to find out. In the study, five forms of social stress were analyzed: social network size, marital status, social support, social strain, and loneliness. Researchers found that all five of these stressors - having a small network of loved ones, lacking a romantic partner, having a low perception of social support, experiencing social tensions, and feeling isolated - led to telomere shortening, with few social supports, a lack of partner, and social strains being especially impactful.

High quality connections to others not only provide us with companionship and a sense of well-being and mastery over our lives, they also offer us a safe setting to air grievances and gain feedback and perspective.

People with solid social support feel accepted and hold a more positive view of themselves,  increasing the confidence they hold in their capacity to handle stressful experiences - and consequently, their ability to cope when life gets tough.  

Three effective ways to tame your stress

When stress takes hold and life feels overwhelming, it is not always easy to remember to take care of yourself. But finding ways to manage it is key for preserving your mental and physical health - and helping you stay young in the process. Here are three easy ways to do it.

1. Move your body. Besides the countless benefits that exercise offers physical health, getting some movement is also a wonderful way to boost mental health by releasing stress. Exercise comes in numerous forms, and does not need to include the gym. A simple walk around the block, a game of pickleball, or following a virtual yoga class are all worthwhile ways to manage stress.

2. Take a breath. Five minutes of intentional deep breathing is a powerful way to regulate the nervous system to a more relaxed state.

3. Reach out for support. You do not need to handle big emotions alone when stressors arise. Research shows that reaching out to others during a stressful event is an impactful way to strengthen social bonds and improve mood. Even a quick phone or video chat check-in can be enough to shift your perspective. If you need additional support, seek out the help from a mental health professional who can further help you to find ways to best manage your stress.