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Stress is dangerous, but research shows how to cope

Stressed to death? With Autumn Quarter finals edging up and the end in sight, I always have wondered what stress is capable of doing to us. I found the answer in a National Geographic special on the work of Stanford University professor and MacArthur Genius grantee Dr. Robert Sapolsky. His longitudinal study on stress concluded that it can be lethal to our minds, bodies and spirits.

There are those of us here as students at Ohio State who work three jobs, with kids, or taking care of a parent or grandparent. There are others of us who are first generation college students or pay our own way through school. There are those of us who are catching colds and fighting the flu. Others combine sleep deprivation with all of the above. I recently looked to Sapolsky’s work to see if I could garner an understanding of the science behind the burden of stress.

The answer is more than alarming. Stress is complicated. In Sapolsky’s work, he has found that stress can shrink our brains, kill brain cells, clog our arteries and shorten the telomeres — regions of repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome that protect the end of the chromosome from deterioration. Basically, a telomere is like the plastic end of the shoelace that keeps the lace from fraying.

What’s the big deal about that? Shortening of the telomeres results in premature aging in all aspects (skin, organ and tissue, brain function, just to name a few), which means this shortening also puts your body closer to dying. Stress is, in fact, a killer. How can we manage stress better and not let it compromise our livelihood? Sapolsky’s work also provided a framework for combating stress.

There are three main categories of stress coping I pulled from his research: community, personal practices and jettisoning stressors. Community refers to the need to establish groups that are supportive and conducive to your wellness. Perhaps that is your movie night with your homies, retail therapy with the ladies or, for me, an all-women book club. Community — being in a supportive space — helps to repair the damage stress causes.

With respect to personal practices, the professor meant that we should incorporate practices that reduce stress. Practices proven to do that include getting adequate sleep. Meditation and prayer have appeared repetitively in several studies as good ways to reduce stress. Another method is moderate exercise. Too much exercise, or obsessing about it, can be stressful. (I like riding my bike to work and class, and the bar.)

Last, getting rid of stressors like poor relationships and unhealthful habits that bring you down is the other category that can be helpful. Regularly purging and cleaning your living space can give you peace of mind. All of these together can bring balance to our lives and revive our bodies, minds and souls.

Remember as you gain more stress in your life, put things in place to reduce the impact of stress so your life is as long as it can be.

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