It was a glorious morning in Venice. I was running through the streets picking up a couple of things while my mother and twin sons got ready to leave. We were headed to Assisi that day. I came across Roberto, the street artist I had bought some paintings from during that trip. He insisted that we walk over to the café next door and have a cup of real coffee. “Roberto, I don’t have any time. I have to run.” Italians really don’t understand our concept of time. He looked at me puzzled. Not only was I not getting away without a cup of coffee, he knew exactly what he was getting me – a traditional Italian espresso in those tiny cups. “No café Americano” his voice boomed in the piazza. I glanced at my watch as I held the last painting I had just picked up from him, and sighed. “OK Roberto, let’s do this,” I said.
We walked over the few steps to the café and he ordered our coffee as we stood and chatted at the bar as all good Italians do at 10 a.m. Did I mention that they don’t understand the rat race? He laughed as I almost spat out that bitter coffee. I laughed too. It was just a short little interlude and for a few minutes I forgot that I had to be somewhere by a certain time. For just a few minutes I stopped to have a cup of bitter espresso with a painter who considered himself my new best friend. We talked about Disney (why do people always ask Americans about New York, Disney and Las Vegas?), my boys, his boys, and when I would be back. He forced me to stop and appreciate the fact that I was in Italy making new friends, that it was a glorious summer day, and that if we got to Assisi half an hour later than planned it really wouldn’t make an iota of difference. Think about this. I was on a dream vacation in Italy, and I was rushing through parts of it hurrying to get to the next destination. What was I thinking?
Sometimes we stress ourselves out even when there is absolutely no reason to be stressed. Sometimes we have good reason to be stressed. Any way you slice it, stress has a very real effect on us. Did you know that stress actually accelerates cellular aging? It literally shortens our telomeres which are strands of our DNA.
Did you know that even the anticipation of stress can shorten those telomeres? It’s really quite crazy when you think about the power of our thoughts. Our sympathetic nervous system is in charge of our fight-or-flight response, our need for self-preservation. Your brain perceives a threat, and you will find that there are physical responses to that perception. Your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate go up. You sweat, your mouth feels dry, and you might even feel yourself shaking. There is a catecholamine release and hormones suddenly course through your body. You experience what many of us call an Adrenaline rush. It can take an hour after a stress reaction for your vital signs to normalize, and your brain to calm down. A little stress can actually keep us on our toes and make us productive, but too much stress will age us in ways big and small.
Let’s talk about those DNA strands called telomeres again. We talked about how stress can shorten them. Here’s the problem with that situation. The shorter our telomeres get, the higher our likelihood of getting heart disease and osteoporosis. Chronic stress will also increase our Cortisol level which leads to weight gain and inflammation as well as increased blood pressure and glucose levels. Inflammation has been associated with Insomnia, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s Disease, Depression, Anxiety, and more. Night shift work is a major stressor, and night shift workers tend to get poor sleep. The physical stress associated with shift work alone has been termed a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Simply put, stress can give you cancer. When you joke that the stress is killing you, think again, because it really is.
The shorter our telomeres get, the faster we age. This means that the more stressed you are, the older you will look. You will get more wrinkles than someone your age with lower stress levels. Why does this happen? Well, we spoke about Cortisol earlier with regard to inflammation, neurocognitive decline, psychological disorders, heart disease, and more. It does damage to your skin as well. It makes the body unable to repair itself like it normally would. Cortisol will even break down the Elastin and Collagen under your skin which then leads to wrinkles and sagging, and makes you look older than your age. Stress will also cause problems in relationships because people snap at each other and are less likely to forgive. Stress can make you more selfish and less empathetic. It certainly causes problems in the bedroom. Men will have difficulty achieving and maintaining erections because the fight-or-flight response does not help in the bedroom either. Poor sleep and higher stress will drop testosterone levels to those of men 10 years older in the span of a week. Yes, it happens that quickly. Stress will also make women have lower libido, and have a harder time achieving orgasm. Plus it will increase their risk of infertility threefold.
My mind takes me back to that morning in Venice sometimes. It reminds me that life does not always have to be a rat race, and that there is time for a cup of coffee. There is so much beauty in the world around us. Stop and savor it once in a while. You will certainly live longer, be healthier, and have a better quality of life. I will end with another thought about Italy and the Italian way of life. “Il dolce di fare niente” is an Italian phrase that literally translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.” Try it sometime.
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