Stress is part of life and with every new life stage comes new stressors. However, coping with stress can become increasingly difficult as the body responds to stress differently as we age. Learn more about how responses and stressors change with age and how to help manage stress in a senior loved one.
Changes in Stress with Age
When we become stressed and our brains senses danger, our muscles contract, and adrenal glands release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones give us more energy and ultimately increase heart rate and blood pressure. These are all natural responses to stress and are not harmful if they occur infrequently. However, if stress levels increase and our body is constantly on alert, there can be lasting side effects like a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and even an increased risk for heart disease.
For seniors, these bodily changes in response to stress can have a physical and mental effect. Dr. Dossett, internal and integrative medicine specialist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine says that as we age, “We tend to have less resilience to stress, and older adults often find that stress affects them differently now.” He goes on to say, “Our cells are aging. Heart fitness and lung capacity decline, especially if you’re sedentary.”
Mental changes can also occur and stress hormones in the brain have been linked to short-term cognitive issues separate from dementia or age-related memory loss. While sleep helps most people ‘reset’, many seniors have trouble sleeping and stress can contribute to a lack of sleep, resulting in a vicious cycle of stress and sleep issues.
In addition to changes in bodily response, many seniors experience changes in stress triggers. “Stressors that tend to affect seniors are the loss of a loved one, too much unstructured time on your hands, a change in relationships with children, or a loss of physical abilities, such as vision, hearing, balance, or mobility,” says Dr. Dossett.
Common Symptoms of Stress
Responses to stress can look different for each person and can manifest itself in many forms. Common symptoms of stress include:
- back pain
- tension headaches
- heart palpitations
- poor concentration
5 Tips for Managing Stress in Seniors
These general tips from the Harvard Special Health Report Stress Management can help you manage stress in your life or the life of a senior loved one:
1. Engage in regular physical activity
From group fitness classes to personal training programs, physical activity is crucial for aging well and managing stress at all ages. Exercise releases a ‘feel good’ hormone that combats stress hormones and can help seniors deal with anxiety.
2. Set boundaries
Think through your major stressors. Are they commitments you can now say ‘no’ to? As you age and lifestyles change, it’s important to set boundaries with family and friends. Saying ‘no’ in a kind and compassionate way can help you state your wishes and handle conflicts, alleviating some stress.
3. Join a support group
Grief is a major stressor for seniors as spouses and friends pass away. If your stress is related to grief or caregiving stress, join a support group where you can open up to others who are on a smilier journey.
4. Consider adding a pet to your family
Having a pet is a big commitment and can be physically demanding so carefully consider the pros and cons before adding a pet to your family. Studies have shown that time spent with pets can actually lower stress. Additionally, some pets require physical exercise, another way to reduce stress.
5. Talk to a trusted friend or counselor
Talking to a trusted friend or professional is a great way to handle stress at any age. Letting others know what you are going through and simply having a listening ear can relieve stress in practical and tangible ways, resulting in assistance and help when needed.
If you or a loved one is experiencing stress, it’s best to seek help quickly. Dr. Ann Webster, a health psychologist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine cautions, “Stress increases blood sugar and can make diabetes worse. It can create high blood pressure and cause insomnia. It can also make people become anxious, worried, depressed, or frustrated.”
How do you manage your stress? Share your tips with us in the comments below!