As we enter senior life, the causes of our stress change. Young adults often feel stress at their job or in starting a new career, raising children, and running a household. Older adults may be dealing with the loss of a spouse or loved one, declining health, or a loss of independence. As an older adult, you may find yourself with too much empty time to fill or a feeling of isolation.
According to the National Institutes of Health, two commonly experienced triggers for senior stress are “slowing down with age” and “concern for world conditions.” Others that made the top 10 include:
- Recurring pain
- Too little time with children or grandchildren
- Wishing parts of one’s life had been different
For any age group, the common theme is the sense that we have either partly or fully lost control of our life.
The effects of stress, especially senior stress, can be severe–but there are ways to manage it and regain a more positive outlook.
The Effects of Stress
Stress causes physical, mental, or emotional tension. Stressors can be external (psychological, or social situations) or internal (the result of an illness or medical procedure).
As strange as this sounds, our bodies react to stress as if we are under physical attack. Hormones such as adrenaline are released, the heart and lungs accelerate, digestion slows or stops, blood vessels constrict in many parts of the body, muscles prepare for action, pupils dilate, and the ability to hear or see may diminish.
Some degree of stress is a part of life, can improve focus, and may even help motivate you at times. Too much constant or repeated bouts of stress, however, can have many negative effects. These include:
- Memory problems
- Poor judgement
- Lack of concentration
- Poor sleep
- Fatigue and muscle pain
- Social withdrawal
- Irritability and mood swings
- Headaches and heart palpitations
- Significant weight gain or loss
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk for heart disease
- Increases blood sugar that may make diabetes worse
- A weakened immune system
According to the Harvard Business Review, because humans tend to make some common mistakes when we are overwhelmed, we often make the situation worse. Among those mistakes is feeling that being overwhelmed is a sign of weakness. We become self-critical, which can lead to putting off dealing with stress or anxiety. Also, we tend to become more rigid–less flexible about trying new approaches, and more likely to continue employing strategies we’ve used in the past that may not work.
Tips for Managing Senior Stress
Find out what is causing your stress. Sometimes you may know you’re stressed, but haven’t yet identified the cause for this feeling.
Think about when the feeling started and under what circumstances. Talk with others close to you to help you clarify the situation. When you’ve identified the source or sources of your stress, write them down. This is the first step in getting past the feeling.
The origins of your anxiety may also be due to a physical condition or a drug interaction. It’s always a good idea to consult with your physician to rule out these potential causes.
Do something different. To refresh, do something new. If you aren’t very active, and if you haven’t exercised in a while, talk to your physician about starting an exercise program. Exercise can provide a sense of satisfaction and increased physical capabilities that will help you regain self-confidence.
You may choose to immerse yourself in a book that inspires, informs, or entertains you. If some home project or task has been hanging over your head, complete it–and reap the satisfaction from doing so. Call the friend you haven’t talked to in weeks. If it’s been a long winter inside your home (and for most of us, it has), get outside and enjoy the sunshine. Join an online discussion group, or start a new hobby.
Fresh starts and new routines can lift you out of a stress-producing rut.
Laugh. Read a book by your favorite humorist, watch a sitcom or a blooper reel, or listen to a comedy routine. It’s good for you, physically–your heart and lungs benefit from the activity of laughing, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol are lowered. Laughing also fosters emotional and mental resilience by setting aside negative feelings.
Experiment. Many people have been able to relax and refocus with relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing exercises or, if you are physically able, yoga or tai chi.
Consider cognitive behavioral therapy. This means engaging in talk therapy with a mental health counselor. It helps people become aware of inaccurate or negative thoughts, enabling them to respond in a more positive and effective way to stressors.
It can also be combined with other treatments, such as antidepressants or other medications.
Look for the positive. There is an old song lyric that goes:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In Between
We’re not talking pie-in-the-sky philosophy. When we are struggling, it’s very easy to forget the good things in life: the companionship of a friend, love of a family member, activities you enjoy, your accomplishments, music that touches you, or the delicious quiet of a summer evening in your garden.
Just reminding yourself that these positive things are a part of your life can help immensely.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, making management vital to a long life. For more tips to manage your stress, read our blog.