By Kim Scott, LMFT
The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., and Elissa Epel, Ph.D. is an excellent book on the key factors that play into how we age, and why some people age better than others. Their ground-breaking research uncovers the profound impact telomeres have on our health. Telomeres are the capping structure at the end of each chromosome. These structures can be visualized like the plastic tips at the end of a shoe-lace. The plastic tips keep the laces from fraying, and in a similar way, telomeres protect our chromosomes and keep them from aging. Although our telomeres shorten each time our cells divide, Drs. Blackburn and Epel have found that there is quite a lot we can do to forestall this process.
Now I am not a scientist and this isn’t usually the type of book that I would be drawn to, but once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. I want to share with you some of the really important “takeaways” of this book because as a psychotherapist I was blown away to see how much of aging is tied to stress.
Reducing stress, changing how we think about stress, and changing how we manage stress can significantly increase our longevity and the healthy portion of our lives! Of course, I have read many other studies that tie stress to disease, but Dr. Blackburn’s and Epel’s research made this point even more compelling as they showed how stress actually changes our DNA. And, in their 325-page book, approximately 90 pages are devoted to a discussion about stress. Other psychological factors they tie to telomere health are early childhood experiences, our relationships, and social networks. I found their research truly empowering because there are so many things we can each do to lengthen the healthy span of our lives.
Their initial research on stress was on a group of mothers who were caring for their chronically ill children. Drs. Epel and Blackburn found that the telomeres of these caregivers were dramatically shorter than non-caregiving mothers. They found that the longer a mother had been caring for her chronically ill child, the shorter her telomere’s. They also found that the mother’s subjective experience of her stress level impacted the length of her telomeres. For example, the mom who described herself as “stressed-out” had shorter telomeres than the mom who did not perceive herself as overly stressed. The correlation between one’s perception of stress and the length of their telomeres held true for the individuals in the control group as well. So, Drs. Epel and Blackburn concluded that how we view stress impacts our health all the way down to the chromosomal level.
So, some of the tips offered in The Telomere Effect offer include the following:
- Distance your thinking self from your feeling self . . . Blackburn and Epel offer a number of techniques for doing this. One is changing the narrative in your mind about the stressful event by thinking about it in the third person. For example, “Boy, Kim is really nervous about this.” They have found that simply changing the narrative in your head can change the feeling response. Using this technique, you become an audience member or a bystander to the stress instead of the subject of the stress. This can also help you view possible solutions from different angles.
- Practice self-compassion. This includes acknowledging and validating your feelings while putting your hands over your heart and saying something loving to yourself (as you might say to a friend) such as “I love and accept myself as I am.”
- Manage the internal critic. The “internal critic” is that voice in your head that reviews your actions, judges you, and finds many ways you are less than perfect. Quiet that voice or learn to ignore it. You might begin ignoring the internal critic by simply acknowledging its presence and then letting it float away like a cloud.
- Find your purpose in life. Many studies show that having a purpose increases happiness and it also appears to increase telomerase, which is an enzyme that replenishes and repairs telomeres. Working with purpose makes what could be a stressful task into a meaningful, fulfilling or exciting job. For instance, I have a friend who viewed caring for her dying father as one of the most special times in her life because of the closeness they shared, rather than viewing it as stressful or a burden.
- Practice developing an optimistic attitude and stopping destructive thoughts in their track. Again, our thoughts can absolutely impact how we feel. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” If we learn to see the future with hope and acknowledge what is good, this will reduce stress and increase our happiness quotient.
And this is just a sampling of the tips Blackburn and Epel offer in The Telomere Effect. I highly recommend this book to expand your understanding of the science behind “living younger and healthier, longer.”
For additional, tips on how to increase your relaxation quotient and stop the destructive thoughts that may rattle around in your head, also check out Relax, Refocus, and Refresh, a workbook I co-authored with Allison Hinkle. In this workbook, you will also receive downloads to 3 guided meditations to help you on your journey. It is available on Amazon.com or through my website at kimscottmft.com/emotivities.
To begin your stress reduction journey, I am here to help. You can reach me at 818-309-7780.
I am a licensed marriage, family and child therapist in private practice in Porter Ranch, CA. I have been licensed for over 30 years and works with teens and adults on stress and anxiety management.