Sweating the small stuff may cause you to die sooner than a couple of majorly stressful events, according to new research in the journal Experimental Gerontology. It’s not how bad the situation is, but how bad you think it is: People who viewed their life as moderately stressful were 63 percent more likely to die than those who never let hassles get to them.
“With a single stressful event, chemicals such as norepinephrine and epinephrine—or adrenaline—rise in your body. With multiple small events, it’s your cortisol levels that rise,” says Jay Winner, M.D., founder and director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic in California. And elevated cortisol can decrease immunity, elevate blood sugar, and increase abdominal fat (which is linked with a higher cardiovascular risk), he adds.
So which of your daily habits contribute to the problem the most? We’ve got five of the biggest small stressors that could be digging your grave.
In a 2013 study, Swedish researchers found that women who lived more than 31 miles from work tended to die sooner than those who lived closer, namely due to the stress of traveling and the time it takes away from other priorities, like family. Plus, the further you have to go every day, the less physically active you are and higher your blood pressure, body weight, and metabolic risk all rise, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
If you’ve got a long haul in the a.m., transform your commute by transforming your thinking: Ditch the idea that you’re trapped in a car and look at it as your hour alone, suggests Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. Listen to music you love, audiobooks, or even podcasts that will help you feel calm or happy—whichever you need more. “You control the hour of your commute, so make it your time for self-nourishment and inspiration,” she adds.
“Research shows that hearing the news each day stresses us out,” Hall says. Terrorism, natural disasters, financial upheaval—it all contributes to an out-of-control emotion and leaves us feeling powerless. And while this helplessness causes many of us to just turn it off, don’t opt for ignorance. “Learn to watch the news objectively, listening for charged phrases and watching for the manipulation of language,” Hall suggests. And incorporate news that interests you instead of just global highlights. Mixing in stories you enjoy and ones that are uplifting can help balance that helpless feeling, she adds.
To do lists become toxic when your happiness rides on how much gets checked off. “So many people, especially type A’s, attach their sense of value to how much they complete in a day,” says Lauren E. Miller, author of 5 Minutes to Stress Relief. If lists are how you work, don’t ditch them, but chunk out your tasks: Separate your work into things to do within 24 hours, within the week, and within the month. And limit your daily list to three tasks. “We can successfully handle three pieces of information at a time, so limiting yourself will actually help you be more productive because you won’t feel so overwhelmed,” she adds.
There’s no question of technology’s benefits: We’re more connected with people, news, and events around the world than ever before. But most of us still haven’t learned when to turn it off, says Winner. And it’s affecting our wellbeing: A 2011 University of Cambridge study shows that over one-third of people feel overwhelmed by technology, and that those who aren’t crazy about devices feel less satisfied with their lives. Plus a Swedish study found that people who look at screens late at night were more likely to be stressed and have depressive symptoms than those who turned off technology before bed. “Having some time when you’re not immersed in technology can pay off in relaxation gold,” Winner says. Set aside tech-free time, whether it’s a few hours or entire days.
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A lot of us pride ourselves on our ability to juggle, but it’s really not something to brag about, Miller warns. “We can only do one thing well at a time, so when we’re trying to do multiple, unrelated tasks, we can create brain fatigue,” she explains. “Your brain is active for 90 minutes and then it clicks into rest mode for 20,” Miller says. When you try and work straight through instead of honoring these breaks, your brain goes into overdrive, boosting your cortisol levels, and starting a cycle of stress. Multiple studies have shown that people are more productive when they work uninterrupted for 90 minutes and then take a 15 to 20 minute break.
Instead of trying to balance multiple things all day, set your alarm for an hour and a half. Work straight through, focusing on a single task. When your 90 minutes are up, take a break. Consider spending it outside: “It only takes 20 minutes to get your daily dose of vitamin D, which also happens to be an antidepressant,” Miller adds.