Presented by: Joan Vernikos, PhD
Director Emeritus, NASA Life Sciences
November 19, 2009
- Stress is neither inherently good nor bad-it’s simply the physiological and psychological response to external or internal tension.
- Not everyone experiences stress the same way, but there are tactics that can help you deal with stressors more effectively.
- Most stress is generated by the brain but if you can create it, you can also control it.
- Older adults can often handle stress better because they have more experiences to draw from to deal with it.
- Recognize the difference between effective and ineffective coping mechanisms in responding to stress
How early humans responded to stress was a matter of survival. Facing a predator, searching for food, and protecting a family were very real dangers that instigated an automatic, innate reaction that prepared them to attack or run away-the fight or flight response. Today, our bodies still instigate the same primitive response system even though our stressors have changed.
“Our genes are pretty much identical to our prehistoric ancestors, and the response to stress is identical even though the stressors are different,” said Joan Vernikos, PhD, former head of NASA Life Sciences, who spoke at a presentation sponsored by the Stanford Health Library. “However, you can learn stress fitness. By that I mean learning to engage the brain to enable it to be ready to encounter and deal with any stress that comes your way.”
For seniors, today’s stressors are less about sheer survival and more about personal trials, such as dealing with financial uncertainty, ailing health, the loss of a loved one, or family concerns. But the same biological cascade takes place, flooding our bodies with a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure, and boost energy.
“But stress itself is neither good nor bad,” said Dr. Vernikos. “Stress is simply a stimulus. It’s our body telling us what we need to do. What’s important is not the stress but how we respond to it. It’s mostly a matter of perception.”
The fact is, everyone reacts to stress differently. Some people seek stress for stimulation or fun. A ride on a roller coaster can be great fun or a terrifying ordeal, depending on your personal perspective. And it’s impossible to eliminate stress completely – nor should we want to since it’s such an effective tool for both protecting and enhancing our health. The problem arises when we respond excessively to stress. That’s when the system can turn against you and do harm, said Dr. Vernikos.
“We need the response to stimuli to switch on energy,” she said. “But managing stress is fundamental. Most of the stress you feel is self-generated in the brain, which means that if you can create it, you can also control it.”
Dr. Vernikos said you can train your brain to respond differently to stress, much like how a computer can be programmed to filter out spam. If the brain creates the “what ifs” that keep you awake at night, you can design tactics to control them. “The brain is producing all sorts of worries, fears, and anxieties about things that have not happened yet,” she said. “Learn how to press the delete key.”
One way to do this is to draw upon your experiences as a sort of database to identify how you have successfully handled similar stressors in the past. Older adults can often handle stress better because they have a larger database to draw on. Culling your memories helps you build a strong, positive database to retrieve relevant information and respond rationally.
Another important factor is to recognize the difference between effective and ineffective coping mechanisms in responding to stress. Ineffective coping wastes energy does not address the problem and often involves tactics like eating, drinking, insomnia, or misdirected anger. Effective coping allows you to assess, take charge, and be prepared. It involves asking others for help and learning to say no as a way to step back and reprogram your thinking.
Dr. Vernikos also suggested that you be aware of your body language when stressed: By dropping your shoulders, taking deep and slow breaths, and opening your mouth to relax your jaw, you can provide instant relief. Other soothing tactics include laughter, pets, music, and developing a strong social network.
About the Speaker
Joan Vernikos, PhD, a space pioneer researcher and former head of NASA Life Science, is a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences and an advisor to the European Space Agency. She is the author of “Stress Fitness for Seniors” and “The G-Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging.”
For More Information:
About Dr. Joan Vernikos
Stanford Aging Adult Services
Stanford Center on Stress and Health