How to age well: build psychological resilience to beat stress for a longer, healthier life; 8 expert tips to help

How to age well: build psychological resilience to beat stress for a longer, healthier life; 8 expert tips to help
  • The more psychologically resilient we are, the higher the likelihood we will live a longer and healthier life, a Yale study concludes
  • Look for silver linings, psychiatrist advises; plus seven other ways to help manage strong emotions and cope with adversity – including laughter

Stress is not always a bad thing. Moderate or acute stress may improve brain performance and memory, increase alertness, strengthen our immunity, and help us become more resilient.

When stress reaches unmanageable levels, though, it puts physical and emotional well-being at risk, says Dr Quinney Chan Kwan-nap, a Hong Kong-based psychiatrist.

“Chronic stress activates our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis … the interaction between our hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands,” Chan says.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

This triggers the secretion of the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which play a role in our body’s “fight or flight” response, boosting our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate.

These elevated stress-hormone levels can have wide-ranging damaging effects on heart function, metabolism – causing obesity and increasing the risk of glucose intolerance – and the immune system, causing chronic inflammation and higher risk of infection.

Mental health suffers, too: memory and mood are affected; the risk of developing addictions – to alcohol and drugs, for example – rises; decision-making is impaired; and insomnia and anxiety may develop.

The warning signs of stress, how it can make you ill and what to do

A new Yale University study also found that chronic stress makes the biological clock tick faster.

Researchers evaluated blood samples for age-related chemical changes from 444 participants, from 19 to 50 years old, who completed questionnaires that gave insight into their stress levels and psychological resilience – the ability to manage strong emotions and adapt when faced with adversity.

Participants who scored high on measures related to chronic stress had accelerated ageing markers and physiological changes such as increased insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

Stress did not affect everyone’s health to the same extent. Participants who scored high on two psychological measures – emotion regulation and self-control – were more resilient to the effects of stress on ageing and insulin resistance.

“These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster, but they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimise these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control,” said Zachary Harvanek, a resident in the Yale Department of Psychiatry and an author of the study.

The more psychologically resilient we are, the higher the likelihood we would live a longer and healthier life, it concludes.

How to be happy: the 10 universal principles

“We all like to feel like we have some agency over our fate,” added study co-author Rajita Sinha, a professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and child study at Yale. “So, it is a cool thing to reinforce in people’s minds that we should make an investment in our psychological health.”

Extending a healthy lifespan and building psychological resilience start with reducing and managing stress in your life. Here are eight ways to achieve that.

1. Develop cognitive reappraisal skills

You may not be able to change the situation that is causing you stress, but you can reframe its meaning and significance, says Chan. When you change your interpretation of an event, your emotional response to it changes, too.

“Look for the silver lining in every bad situation and ask yourself what you can learn from it. Stress and difficulty aren’t signs of failure – they can be stepping stones to happiness and success.”

2. Avoid ‘catastrophising’

People who are less resilient to stress tend to catastrophise events, focusing only on what went or might go wrong, says Chan.

“They may underestimate their abilities and overestimate the risks and negatives. They may also have trouble saying ‘no’ and are more likely to overcompensate in the hope of minimising uncertainty and avoiding negative consequences.”

3. Exercise regularly

“Exercise relaxes our mind and body as it releases endorphins, ‘feel-good’ hormones that improve your sense of well-being,” says Hafsa Khan, an alternative medicine practitioner from Balance Health in Hong Kong.

Workouts that involve a training partner, such as martial arts, are also ideal, as they require you to make social connections, which also helps to reduce stress.

4. Confide in others

A good support system is essential to strong psychological health. When you feel overwhelmed, share your feelings with a trusted friend or family member, Khan advises. If you need help or advice, do not be afraid to ask for it.

“Sharing your problems lessens the emotional burden and helps you see things from a different perspective. If you prefer not to talk to anyone, write down your thoughts in a journal or talk to yourself out loud – these may help to relieve some of the pressure you’re feeling.”

5. Learn to say ‘no’

When you set boundaries in specific situations, you are letting others know what is or is not OK or acceptable.

Learning to say “no” to others is one way to set boundaries – it teaches you to value yourself more, conserves your emotional energy, prevents burnout, and gives you a sense of control over how you live and spend your time.

6. Connect with your spiritual side

Most people living in Blue Zones – places in the world where people live the longest, and are healthiest – tend to belong to a faith-based community or engage in spiritual practices regularly. For instance, Okinawans in Japan take a few moments each day to honour their ancestors, and Adventists observe the Sabbath.

Studies have shown the positive impact of religious or spiritual practice on mental health – it helps manage stress and anxiety, creates a sense of inner peace and of purpose and meaning, and generates feelings of connection with others.

Meditation has the same effect.

How to accept emotions and think positively to reduce stress in tough times

7. Get sufficient quality sleep

“Sleep is the first thing we sacrifice when we’re stressed, but a lack of sleep worsens stress and makes us feel irritable,” says Khan.

We need at least eight hours of quality sleep every night, to recharge the mind and body, and boost stress management.

8. Laugh more

Laughter helps build positive emotions, relax muscles and relieve physical tension.

Look for ways to laugh every day, whether watching funny videos, sharing jokes with friends or playing with children.

Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here.

More Articles from SCMP

Hong Kong residents living near border with mainland China fear return of parallel traders and shoppers, as police step up patrols

China, Australia talks an example to others

The Chinese ‘spy balloon’ shot down by US missile wasn’t one of ours, says country’s biggest weather balloon maker

Inside Jeff Bezos’ shiny new US$500 million Koru megayacht and gigantic Abeona support vessel: the Amazon billionaire’s flashy ships are nearly ready – with a pool, cinema, helipad and more

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *