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Can That Cause Permanent Damage?

Posted on Fri, 25 May, 2012

We are all guilty of asking someone, usually a doctor, if something we have done or been exposed to can cause permanent damage.  Safe to say a majority of it occurred in our college years, but turns out violence does have a permanent effect.  On a cellular level no less.

According to a recent study at Duke University, the stress people encounter from violence causes permanent molecular changes.  The DNA can no longer regenerate effectively and ultimately lead to the physical effects we associate with aging: muscles lose tone, skin sags, internal organs aren’t as efficient as they were, etc.  I think it safe to say that since premature aging is triggered through the stress violence produces in the physiological reaction, then exposure to prolonged stress will bring about premature death.  That is, if the violent act itself isn’t threatening that very thing.

Pop culture seems to have long embraced that fact that “stress kills”, otherwise all those  late night infomercials wouldn’t have a market.  But it also seems to get lost amidst all the other health breakthroughs that permeate our culture and the fact that humans (maybe just Americans) have a very short attention span).  We have an insatiable need for more and more information on how we live badly and hurt ourselves, desperately clinging onto the next fad diet that will help rejuvenate our minds while slimming our waistline or strange exercise regimen that will bring youthful vigor permanently.  Yet, we do very little to sustain the changes we seek, falling back into patterns that have been reinforced in our brains.  In looking for change, we miss the opportunities for growth it seems.


I like to use the yin-yang concept with my clients in order to facilitate the understanding that every aspect of the world exists in a duality; good/bad, positive/negative, strong/weak, etc. In it’s simplest forms we see it in nature with the seasons, and all types of weather.  We see it in the human race in our capacity for compassion and love as well as our darker sides of vengeance and misused anger.  All bad circumstances come with an opportunity for growth, albeit they are sometimes hard to find amidst the emotional pain that accompanies them.  Turning a difficult experience on it’s ear by looking for what is the “takeaway” or the “silver lining” reinforces a positive outlook by compelling us to notice and appreciate the possibility of good within bad.  I lived this personally 16 years ago when my father died, compelling me to change major things in my life, such as my geographical residence, allowing me to meet my husband.   When one door closes, as the old adage goes.  Some doors close pretty loudly.

So if stress (from any source) produces permanent damage to our DNA, what can the opposite of stress produce?  What can we take away from this study beside not to engage in violence? We hear everywhere that exercise promotes youth and long-term health, heck it even is touted as the best anti-depressant when consistent and accompanied by routine sleep habits and bright light exposure.  Exercise seems to be a catch-all remedy, addressing physical, emotional and spiritual needs. What then could mindfulness techniques do for our cells?  Will it reverse the premature aging? Perhaps, but more likely that and other healthful lifestyle habits will promote longevity through the cultivation of gratitude and optimism, and making good choices a priority. These experiences must have an equally compelling positive outcome to our physiological health.

I think the Duke study teaches us not only what we have long expected regarding stress, but that the counter experience can be just as powerful.  Prevention is the focus of the medical industry now.  And yes that is due primarily to the high costs of healthcare and all the crap that comes with healthcare reform.  However, preventing the stress or at least mitigating the impact is really where the focus should be.  Then finally the self-help section would shrink.

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A blog written by a hip, sometimes irreverent shrink who’s been around the block and calls it like it is

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