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From the Newsletter: Are Your Cells Listening to Your Thoughts?

Elissa Epel WH ’97 on stress and cellular damage

It’s been more than 80 years since endocrinologist Hans Selye first noticed, in experiments, the lasting physiological effects of mental and environmental stress. Today it’s clear that those effects, says Elissa Epel WH ’97, extend all the way to the cellular level—specifically, to the telomeres, the caps on the ends of chromosomes.

Dr. Epel, a health psychologist recently named to the National Academy of Medicine, is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where she also directs the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Lab. With her colleague, 2009 Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, she is co-author of 2017’s The Telomere Effect.

Telomeres, Drs. Epel and Blackburn explain, grow shorter naturally with age, like aglets at the end of shoelaces wearing away. As they do, proteins in the chromosomes are more easily damaged, triggering inflammation, cancer, and cell death.

It is not only age, however, that causes telomeres to wear away. They are also affected by physiological changes connected with diet, exercise, level of fatigue—and mental states. One subsection of The Telomere Effect: “Your Cells Are Listening to Your Thoughts.”

“We don’t mean that literally,” says Dr. Epel. “The telomeres are more sensitive than any other part of the DNA to the chemicals surrounding them. Like a canary in coal mine, they can send out help signals.” Dr. Epel’s and Dr. Blackburn’s studies show that people who live with chronic stress—such as caregivers, victims of ongoing violence, even pessimists—have shorter telomeres as the result of hormonal and other physiological changes.

These findings differ somewhat, Dr. Epel explains, from warnings about the now-shorthand “type A personality” first identified in the late 1950s. “We have more knowledge now about what was so bad about being type A. The personality style that makes us more vulnerable to heart disease is hostility—especially cynical hostility, feeling that others have bad intentions. This is also associated with shorter telomeres, especially in men. In women, depression appears more important.” Other long-term mental habits that may be associated with telomere damage, she says, include rumination and a style of overreacting to stress by feeling that one’s ego is threatened.

“We don’t know what came first,” she is quick to add. “If you change personality, do you change telomere length? We do see that an inclination toward hostility or pessimism or impulsivity correlates with cell aging.”

Dr. Epel notes—and The Telomere Effect elaborates—that not all stress is “bad” stress. “We are evolved to be efficient at mounting a big stress response and then getting over it.” Indeed, positive challenges, of the sort that come with an athletic competition or a major presentation, can be highly adaptive, yielding healthy performance and recovery. It’s the negative construction of a threat, a long-term habit of anxious or fearful responses, that correlates with shortened telomeres. Any of a number of approaches, from different cognitive habits to diet, exercise, and meditation, show promise for protecting the telomeres and decreasing the rate of cellular senescence.

Even social networks seem to make a difference, Dr. Epel says. “Our cognition unfolds in complete interaction with the social and physical world. There is a concept called extended mind—the new understanding that the mind is not limited to the brain; the brain is necessary for cognition but cognition doesn’t solely reside there. Rather, we have a cognitive and emotional ecosystem that involves the body, our environment, other people—even our smartphones. It’s fascinating to realize how much more interconnected we are than we think.

“Telomere science shows this. The quality and number of our relationships, the quality of our neighborhood, possibly even the level of greenery—as one study shows so far—may impact us all the way down to the level of the cell.”

In summer 2017, Dr. Epel brought this perspective to the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, an annual interdisciplinary conversation, originated by the Dalai Lama. She is also studying the effects of mindfulness meditation. Smartphone-based studies have shown that a wandering mind correlates with lower levels of happiness; her own research also correlates mind wandering with shorter telomeres. “Mindfulness training,” Dr. Epel says, “is exactly geared to help people be more present and stop being discontent with what is.

“We all spend too much time on screens. It’s important to spend time with whatever, or whoever, is right in front of you.”

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Dr. Epel is leading two upcoming science and meditation retreats. More information can be found here. She has put together a list of practical stress resilience tips, which can be found here.

This story appeared in the fall/winter 2017 issue of Fellowship, the newsletter of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. To see the full newsletter, click here.


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