December 11, 2019
November 15, 2018 by Dr. Kyle Varner in Stress
Hi, I’m Kyle and I am a workaholic.
As a doctor, I already have a pretty exhausting work schedule. But to make matters worse, my ideal weekend hobby isn’t a round of golf or watching movies—my passion is to travel.
I will work 25 days in a row, where I am on-call for 24 hours a day, and then jump on a plane and fly halfway around the world to give a speech in Singapore. Then I’ll jump on another plane to Europe, give another speech there, fly back to the US and work another 45 days in a row.
It’s exhilarating because I love to see and experience new things. However, over the past year, I have become increasingly aware of the price I’m paying for this lifestyle.
As I wrote recently on the top contributors to heart disease, stress can be a killer. Literally.
Beyond making you feel run-down or irritable, stress creeps up on you and deteriorates your body. It’s far more serious than you think.
I didn’t believe it myself for a long time, but here’s what the science has to say about how stress affects your quality of life—
How Stress Shortens Your Lifespan
Over the past few decades, an increasing number of studies have shown links between stress and poorer health outcomes.
One famous study came out in 1991 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that subjects with higher levels of psychological stress were significantly more likely to develop colds.
When we get stressed, our body releases the stress hormone, Cortisol. This is supposed to give us the spurt of energy we need to react to potentially life-threatening situations. If you were being chased by a bear, it’s your Cortisol that would kick-in to help you climb up a tree faster than you ever thought possible.
At the same time, Cortisol also plays an important role in helping regulate your immune system and not produce too much inflammation when it feels a threat.
And that’s where things get tricky. When you are constantly in a state of stress and awash with Cortisol, your body eventually becomes less sensitive to it. This damages your body’s ability to self-regulate and is what makes you more susceptible to illness.
It’s not just your common cold that you have to worry about when this happens, but also more serious conditions like heart disease.
In light of that, it’s perhaps not surprising that men who are less able to handle stress and are more prone to anxiety have been found to have significantly lower life expectancies. One study by Purdue University tracked “neurotic” and “mentally healthy” subjects over the period of 12 years and found that the first group had a survival rate of only 50% during the test period, compared to 75-85% among the second group.
How to Start Reducing Stress in Your Life
So how do we deal with this silent killer? The first step is to step back and take a good hard look at your lifestyle and regular schedule. Are you regularly getting a good night’s sleep? Do you constantly feel overwhelmed by your workload? Are you frequently irritable with your friends and family?
The key things here are to start regulating your sleep, your life schedule, and your ability to combat stress.
To fix up my sleep schedule, the first thing I did was to make a commitment to stop working night shifts. I still get emergency calls in the night every now and then, but it’s significantly less taxing on my body than full night shifts.
You might want to try an app like Sleepmeister which tracks your body patterns overnight and helps you to naturally wake up in the best part of your sleep cycle.
In terms of my life schedule, I had to make a real commitment to slowing down. Unfortunately for me, that means traveling less. Admittedly, I still travel much more than most, but now I take time to plan my itineraries around a more reasonable sleep schedule.
Last but not least, is making an effort to improve your response to stress. One means of doing this is through improving your mindfulness.
As a guy who likes his hard facts, I’ve always been skeptical about spiritual types. But I’m starting to feel that there is something to the growing trends of mindfulness. And in fact, I’ve recently come across some studies that seem to give activities such as meditation scientific backing.
So if you’re willing to give it a try, you can check out the apps Calm and Headspace, which offer guided meditation sessions to help you get started in relaxing and mastering your mind.
As we’ve seen above, chronic stress can make you susceptible to chronic disease. If, like me, you want to minimize your chances of developing a chronic disease later in life, your stress levels are not something to be ignored.
There’s no magic pill for this. It’ll take effort to correct your sleep, work, and mental habits to reduce your overall stress levels. But at the end of the day, it’ll be worth it. Because taking these steps now will ensure you a happier and longer life.