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The science of stress, and how to beat it


A women standing with her hands on her hips, her face turned upwards as the wind blows through her hair

We tend to think about improving our physical fitness in terms of diet and exercise alone. But our state of mind can have a huge impact on our bodies. Stress can undermine our best efforts, no matter how much CrossFit and kale we consume.

Before you get stressed about, well, being stressed, let’s take a moment to understand where it comes from and how it works.

Why does stress affect the body?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have tied mental stress’ effect on the body to a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a natural defense mechanism, giving us a boost of energy whenever we are scared or anxious.3 Back in the old days, it came to the rescue when we were being chased by a lion, tiger, or anything else that sent us running for the hills.

Fast forward to today where lions have been replaced by deadlines, and tigers by snarling bosses. The stress is constant and confusing. It sends our brain mixed signals, which releases too much cortisol. When our systems are overwhelmed with it, we lose the ability to regulate inflammation.4

What is stress doing to us?

We all know that stress can take a toll on our cardiovascular system. However, increased inflammation allows stress to affect us from head to toe.5

  • Increased Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Weakened Immune System
  • Rapid Breathing

How we can reduce stress

Unfortunately, there’s no magic cure for stress. At least not yet. But there are some effective meditation and mindfulness measures you can take to help keep it under control.

In 2017, US scientists conducted an eight-week course of meditation and mindfulness training 
which resulted in participants experiencing a 15% reduction in inflammatory molecules and stress hormones.6

Another study took participants on an intensive, three-month mindfulness retreat where researchers measured cortisol levels, before and afterward. Results were conclusive – those who exhibited an improved understanding of mindfulness showed a noticeable decrease in cortisol.7

Luckily, you don’t have to go on expensive retreats to become more mindful. You can get started anytime you like, from wherever you are – and with the HealthyMind™ benefit from John Hancock Vitality life insurance, you can be rewarded for it!1 John Hancock Vitality members earn Vitality Points for meditating as little as 10 minutes a day and having healthy sleep habits, that can earn them savings on their premiums, gift cards and shopping discounts. Plus, they get a free subscription to Headspace®, a top-rated guided meditation app with millions of users in more than 190 countries.2 Find out how John Hancock Vitality can help you be healthier and more mindful, while saving you money on life insurance. 

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This article is intended to promote awareness and is for educational purposes only.


1 The HealthyMind benefit is not available in New York.
2 Based on internal data from, About Us, accessed from This feature is not available in New York.

Vitality is the provider of the John Hancock Vitality Program in connection with life insurance policies issued by John Hancock. Insurance policies and/or associated riders and features may not be available in all states. Life insurance products are issued by: John Hancock Life Insurance Company (U.S.A.), Boston, MA 02210 (not licensed in New York) and John Hancock Life Insurance Company of New York, Valhalla, NY 10595.