Neuroscientists have identified certain stressful thought patterns that make you old before your time and interfere with a productive and successful career, but there are steps you can take to reduce the damage.
Neuroscientists have identified certain stressful thought patterns that make you old before your time and interfere with a productive and successful career, but there are steps you can take to reduce the damage.Getty

If you’ve been looking for the fountain of youth, you won’t find it in a chill pill or cosmetic surgery. It’s contained in your thoughts. The job stress you’re under could be making you old before your time. A frazzled lifestyle combined with your perception of stress and your unique way of dealing with it create cellular changes in the body that cause you to age, burnout and die prematurely.

The wear and tear of stress and the way you handle it make your mind and body older or younger than you actually are, holding you back from your career dreams. You can see evidence of how the body bears the burden of stress when you look in the mirror and see frown lines or worry lines. The deep furrows between the eyebrows or horizontal lines straight across your forehead develop with movements of the muscles in your face. They’re called worry lines for a reason—a sign that bottled-up stress manifests in your body.

The Neuroscience Behind The Damage

Nobel Prize scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel researched the destructive thoughts that damage your telomeres—the protective tips that reside at the end of chromosomes, monitoring how much you eat, sleep and exercise. In their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier and Longer, Blackburn and Epel explain that telomeres determine how fast a cell ages and the impact it has on your life and health. When telomeres become too short, they stop dividing, and cells grow old. In addition to shortening, however, the scientists discovered that telomeres also lengthen, which slows down the aging process, giving you a longer career trajectory. Some of the factors that determine the aging of the telomeres and prevent premature aging at the cellular level are a healthy diet, genetics, how you respond to stress, ample sleep and regular exercise. But in addition to these factors, the scientists identified 5 toxic thought patterns that lead to shorter telomeres, premature aging and a truncated career trajectory.

1. “Cynical hostility”—seething anger or frequent thoughts that other people can’t be trusted. People with high cynical hostility, angered that others are out to get them, have shorter telomeres and are more prone to cardiovascular disease, metabolic illness and death at earlier ages.

2. Pessimism—the tendency to look at the negative side of life—creates shorter telomeres. This fits with a long-standing body of research showing pessimists die earlier than optimists and fail to climb the career ladder as far and fast than their optimistic cohorts.

3. Rumination—rehashing worries over and over in your mind such as when you replay worry about an argument with your main squeeze. If you ruminate, stress hangs around in your body long after the reason for it is over in the form of elevated heart rate, prolonged high blood pressure, and increased levels of cortisol. In the laboratory, the scientists discovered that people who ruminate have more depression and anxiety that are linked to shorter telomeres and advanced aging.

4. Thought Suppression—the tendency to push away unwanted thoughts and feelings. The avoidance or suppression of negative thoughts and feelings is linked to shorter telomeres.

5. Mind Wandering. A Harvard study reported that the human mind wanders 47 % of the time and when you stray, you pay. In other words, as your mind wanders, you’re more stressed out and unhappy than if you stay in the here and now, for example, when you’re worried about unpaid bills or an unfinished project. The Harvard scientists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found you’re more likely to be happier—no matter what you’re doing even working overtime, vacuuming the house, or sitting in traffic—if you’re focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else or wishing you had done something differently such as what you ate for lunch and what you “should” have eaten. When your mind wanders too much, it stresses you out, shortens your telomeres and prevents you from actualizing your full potential in the present.

Calculate Your Stress Age

You know your birthday, but do you know your stress age? Take the following quiz to get a thumbnail sketch of your stress age. Answer yes or no to the following questions then see what you can do about it.

___1. Are you usually calm when you’re not in control of a situation?

___2. Do you tend to be more positive than negative when you make a mistake?

___3. Are you able to acknowledge and accept negative thoughts and feelings?

___4. Do you live mostly in the present rather than worrying about the future?

___5. Are you mostly optimistic about the future?

___6. Can you keep your mind focused on what you’re doing in the present moment?

___7. Do you usually pay attention to your unwanted worries and anxieties?

___8. Do you rarely catch yourself daydreaming?

___9. Do you believe for the most part that you can trust other people?

___10. Do you usually stay calm, cool and collected after things don’t go your way?

___11. Is it difficult to see the opportunity in a difficult situation? 

___12. Do you often replay past regrets over and over in your mind?

___13. Is it hard to keep your mind from wandering when you focus on a task?

___14. Do you often wish you were somewhere else when engaged in a task?

___15. Do you worry a lot while driving, falling asleep or talking to others?

___16. Do you try to forcefully push unpleasant thoughts and feelings away?

___17. Do you usually have a short fuse when people don’t meet your standards?

___18. Do you believe that whatever can go wrong will go wrong?

___19. Do you believe that other people can’t be trusted?

___20. Do you avoid or put off thinking about negative thoughts or worries?

Your stress age gives you a thumbnail sketch of how stress and the cortisol juices you stew in could be affecting your health even taking years off your life. To calculate your stress age, start with your actual age. Then for questions 1 through 10, subtract a year for each yes answer and add a year for each no answer. For questions 11 through 20, subtract a year for each no answer and add a year for each yes answer. The result is your stress age. *

Reduce Your Stress And Recapture Your Youth

Your stress age gives you a thumbnail sketch of whether you’re older or younger than your chronological age. Scoring older than you are shows how stress and the cortisol juices you stew in could be affecting your health even taking years off your life. But you don’t have to retire to your bed and pull the covers over your head. You can use the quiz results to foster healthy cell renewal, slow the aging process and enjoy a long, productive career. Review the questions where you subtracted a year and focus on changing the specific thought pattern that is creating stress and holding you back from cultivating the career performance you seek.

In addition to beefing up a healthy lifestyle (your exercise regimen, ample sleep and eating healthy foods), researchers explain that mindfulness or thought awareness promotes stress resilience. You can follow the advice of neuroscientists by paying attention to 5 ways you use your mind and add back years to your life and career. Thought awareness lengthens telomeres, determines how much stress you have and makes a difference in how much stress ages you or truncates your career:

1. Learn to watch and regulate your anger and hostility. Ask yourself if you’re attributing false motives or jumping to conclusions about the intentions of others. Start paying attention to how often you vilify people, over-personalize situations or make yourself a victim of circumstance, reacting to situations that might simply be random events. 

2. When you cultivate a more optimistic outlook, you promote stress resilience. Looking at the upside of a downside situation or the opportunity in the difficulty has the potential to lengthen your telomeres and extend your youthfulness even your career trajectory.

3. Keeping your focus on the present instead of ruminating about what has already happened (in the past) or about what might happen (in the future)—none of which you can change anyway—keeps stress levels down, makes you more effective at your job and makes for a happier life.

4. Instead of avoiding negative or unpleasant thoughts, bear witness without reacting to them through mindfulness meditation and bring your mind into the present moment. You can take a dispassionate, bird’s-eye view, watching unpleasant thoughts with curiosity much as you might observe a blemish on your hand, and the negative thoughts usually dissipate.

5. When you keep your awareness in the moment, your presence of mind keeps you de-stressed and fully immersed in your job. You’re able to think mindfully and productively in an alert, active and calm manner. A present-centered mind can contribute to the lengthening of your telomeres, your fountain of youth and a full, happy career.

*This quiz is only a thumbnail sketch to identify certain thought patterns that can increase your stress level. It isn’t clinically precise or intended to scientifically measure the length of your telomeres.0 words 0 chars <1min read


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: