PUMPING IRONY: What? Me Worry?

Stress can slice years off your life span, but I’m a pretty placid guy. Or am I?

One of the more vexing results of my recent lab test seemed to indicate that I was operating at some unsustainable level of stress. This is unsettling — stressful, actually — because I tend to see myself as a pretty calm presence amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life. Most mornings I spend 30 minutes in quiet and peaceful meditation. My workday commute consists of a 10-minute bicycle ride through a lush and verdant park and over the wondrous Mississippi. A poster on the wall above my desk (“When in doubt, breathe in, breathe out”) keeps me centered at work.

And yet . . .

According to the lab results, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, were a bit higher than “optimal” on the morning my blood was drawn, an unexpected finding that now has me all stressed out about whether I’m really stressed out or not. To make matters more angst-ridden, I stumbled across some research last week that suggests that anxiety is linked to accelerated aging.

The study, by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, compared telomere lengths among more than 5,000 middle-aged women (telomeres are considered a key indicator of cellular aging: shorter is bad, longer is good), and found that those women who reported high anxiety levels had shorter telomeres than their more tranquil counterparts. And those shorter telomeres, researchers argued, mean these stressed-out women would see their life span sliced by about six years.

The lead researcher, Olivia Okereke, MD, did note that the study doesn’t actually prove there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between anxiety and an early grave, but she didn’t have to. The damage, in my mind, is already done. Suddenly, I’m finding myself casting about for some “hidden stressors” in my life.

At the Men’s Health Web site, I found a list of five suspected stressors:

• Computer use

• Surviving a layoff

• A newly pregnant wife (!?!)

• Commuting

I do spend an awful lot of time staring at a computer screen. Some experts say that just firing up your laptop can cause your breathing rate to jump by as much as 30 percent. But the rest of the list strikes me as pretty clearly anxiety producing. Nothing that wouldn’t get your attention on a regular basis, if you’re paying attention at all. So, now I’m thinking it must be something that’s really hidden, some debilitating source of anxiety with origins in my misspent youth that has been quietly eating away at my fragile telomeres for decades. I should probably see a shrink, though just imagining the cost in time and energy of the kind of comprehensive therapy I would need to delve that deeply into my psyche makes me a little jittery. Who has that kind of time? And will my insurance cover it? What if the shrink discovers how dysfunctional I really am? Will I be able to return to work? Will My Lovely Wife leave me for a more functional guy with longer telomeres?

This is what happens, I guess, when you wade into this sort of minutiae. It’s hard to slog back to shore without feeling a bit weighed down. I don’t really have a handy antidote, but when I mentioned this to my acupuncturist on Thursday, she stuck a bunch of needles into various parts of my body, and I sunk back into the barcalounger and had a real nice nap. An hour later, I felt like I didn’t have a care in the world.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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