- By Jonah Lehrer
- July 28, 2010 |
- Wired August 2010
Social relationships are a powerful buffer against stress. In fact, several studies in Europe and the US have found that people with fewer friends and family members they’re close to have significantly shorter life expectancies. (The magnitude of the effect is roughly equivalent to smoking cigarettes.) One likely explanation for this phenomenon is the stress of loneliness. Studies of monkeys found that more socially isolated animals have higher levels of stress hormones, a reduced immune response, and a higher mortality rate.
Sleep deprivation is not just about feeling tired. Recent studies have found that even a single night of insufficient sleep — whether it’s spent working the night shift or playing World of Warcraft — triggers an automatic spike in stress hormones. And here’s where biology gets cruel: This stress response then makes it harder to fall asleep when you actually want to, since your sympathetic nervous system is revving at a higher rate. The result is more stress and more insomnia, which helps explain why sleep problems are such an important risk factor for depression.
While observing baboons, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight. They also had a lot more sex, which is a great stress reliever.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that even a short training session in meditation can dramatically reduce levels of stress and anxiety. In fact, a recent study led by Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, demonstrated that a 10-minute lesson in mindfulness meditation seemed to reduce stress in those taking a high-stakes math exam, leading to a five-point increase on average. She argues that meditation allows people to do a better job of not fixating on negative and stressful thoughts, thus freeing up brain space to focus on the arithmetic.
When paratroopers are first learning to parachute, they experience a massive stress response. In fact, one study of Norwegian airmen found that this response started before the jump and lasted for hours afterward. But something interesting happened when the soldiers kept jumping out of planes. Instead of being stressed for hours at a time, they showed elevated levels of stress hormone only while in midair, which is precisely when they needed it. The chronic stress response that causes long-term harm had all but disappeared.
Alcohol is an anxiolytic — it melts away anxieties by dampening the response of the sympathetic nervous system and reducing the release of stress hormones. That’s why a beer tastes so good after a long day. But don’t get carried away: While the moderate consumption of alcohol might reduce the stress response, blood alcohol levels above 0.1 percent — most states consider 0.08 the legal limit for driving — trigger a large release of stress hormones. Although you might feel drunkenly relaxed, your body is convinced it’s in a state of mortal danger.
While exercise is remarkably effective at blunting the stress response, at least for a few hours, this effect exists only if you want to exercise in the first place. After all, a big reason working out relieves stress is that it elevates your mood; when mice are forced to run in the lab, their levels of stress hormones spike. So when you force yourself to go to the gym and then suffer through 30 minutes on the treadmill (lamenting the experience the entire time), you don’t reduce your stress levels. In fact, you might be making things worse.