Psychological Resilience Is Linked to How Much Stress Messes With Your Body

Written by Jacinta Bowler and originally published in Science Alert




I probably don't need to say it, but we should probably all be trying to be less stressed.

Short term, stress can sometimes be helpful – it can help you motivate yourself. But when the stress continues long term, the health effects start to stack up, and studies have shown that this could even age you faster.


Now a new study has looked at people's biological and psychological 'resilience', and found that this resilience is linked to less stress-related negative effects.


"Our society is experiencing more stress than ever before, leading to both negative psychiatric and physical outcomes," researchers from Yale University explain in their new paper.


"Chronic stress is linked to negative long-term health consequences, raising the possibility that stress is related to accelerated aging." 


The team focused their efforts on 'epigenetic clocks' – a set of DNA methylation markers that are able to provide a pretty accurate estimate of biological age. Because methylation markers are on every piece of DNA in your body, it has the added bonus of being able to be tested from blood or in some cases even saliva. The team ended up using one called 'GrimAge'.


The researchers looked at 444 adults between 18 and 50 in New Haven. They were given questionnaires that asked about cumulative stress, self-control, and their current health, and then blood samples were taken to do the GrimAge methylation check, and measure insulin resistance and adrenal sensitivity.


The team found – not particularly surprisingly – that cumulative stress was associated with a change in these methylations, showing that those that stressed more had 'older' cells than what they should have. The team also found that cumulative stress was associated with adrenal sensitivity and insulin resistance, so this wasn't just a cellular problem.


Interestingly though, they also found that not everyone who had chronic levels of stress had the same issues. Those that were good at emotional regulation and self-control – two factors of resilience – seemed to have less of these negative effects.


"These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster," one of the researchers, Yale psychiatry researcher Zachary Harvanek, said in a statement.


"But they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimize these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control."


Self-control and emotional regulation aren't exactly easy skills to develop, but they can be taught and matured over time. And if stressing less isn't an option, working on these skills might be a way we can limit the adverse health effects.


Now this is still very early days for this. The team did control for factors that could influence the data, but as this is an observational study, we can't tell whether stress is really causing these changes, or whether it's just correlation.


"Nonetheless, this study is the first to identify a clear relationship between cumulative stress and GrimAge acceleration in a healthy population, which suggests stress may play a role in accelerated aging even prior to the onset of chronic diseases," the team writes.


"Notably, this relationship was strongly moderated by resilience factors, including self-control and emotion regulation."


The paper has been published in Translational Psychiatry.


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