Stress is killing your body and brain

How long you live is determined by everything from genetics to lifestyle choices. But one factor determining life expectancy has become glaringly obvious too: the toxic stress load. 

“It’s been hiding in plain sight for decades,” Tamen Jadad-Garcia and Dr. Alex Jadad, authors of Healthy No Matter What: How Humans Are Hardwired to Adapt, write in a TIME article. 

The toxic stress load (TSL) is two-fold. It refers to the physical and mental reaction people experience after stressful events, especially longer-term ones, coupled with the “allostatic load” or physical consequences from continuous toxic stress. 

“The TSL is the term that describes the build up of negative physical and psychological changes that result from your ongoing need to respond to challenges,” the authors write in TIME. “It is the baggage, the scars, and the tensions collected through life.”

These tensions carry weight—and the heaviness of your toxic stress load can affect the aging process and your lifespan. Chronic stress can lead to heart problems, for example, that put people at risk for early mortality.

“When your TSL becomes overwhelming, it triggers changes in your body that are so profound that they are equivalent to accelerated aging,” they write, having analyzed research on the lives of people who live the longest in cities across the U.S. 

Everyone feels stress, but race, class, ethnicity, and economic status, among other factors, impact a person’s stress load unequally—with toxic stress affecting people disproportionately from the moment they are born. 

“Many of the factors that influence the intensity, frequency, duration, and manageability of the TSL are already in place even before a person is aware of their own existence,” the authors write. 

However, other controllable factors like sleep, nutrition, work-life, and family can influence the toxic stress load. 

As the nation’s youth suffer through a growing mental health crisis, toxic stress has become more commonplace. Its significant negative health consequences make addressing it dire, the authors write. Most importantly, they note, is addressing which stressors contribute to your load the most. Next, embrace the power of social connectivity to lean on others to lessen the toxic stress load. 

“At any rate, regardless of your labels and identities, which might confer disadvantages or privileges, every day, you will encounter many mental, physical, and social challenges that you will have to overcome in order to thrive. Some you can immediately recognize and tackle,” the authors write. “But it’s how you deal with them that makes the difference between a long and healthy life, and one that is cut short.”

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