Feeling ‘stressed” is an incredibly common emotion, but what does it really mean? And how bad is it, really? In this article, we’ll cover the basics of stress, its impact on health and aging, and how to reduce it.
Causes and function of stress
There are many causes of stress, especially in older adults. Managing chronic illness, losing a loved one, being a caregiver, financial issues, retirement, or even loneliness and separation from friends and family are just a few potential causes.
In a nutshell, stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations – real or perceived. A chemical reaction occurs in your body when you feel threatened that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction can be called “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response, and it can trigger the release of potentially harmful hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. In the short term, this can cause your heart rate to go up, your muscles to tense, and your breathing to quicken. Not all stress is bad stress, and our body is equipped to handle stress in small doses short-term. The longer-term effects are a different story.
How stress changes as we age
Although it’s considered a bad stress hormone, cortisol does serve many important functions — including turning off inflammation. But if the body experiences an ongoing stream of cortisol from chronic stress over time, cells become desensitized to the hormone, causing inflammation to run rampant. And the amount of stress experienced isn’t the only factor. “Turning off” the stress response also becomes more difficult as we age because the brain slowly loses the ability to regulate hormone levels.
When we can’t turn off the stress response, or we’re exposed to long-term chronic stress, it can trigger symptoms that are risk factors for other diseases, such as high blood pressure. But new research is also showing that stress can directly cause certain conditions. AARP explains:
“Scientists have long known that stress complicates a host of health problems. Now they are discovering that chronic stress — a mainstay of modern life — doesn’t merely exacerbate disease, it actually can cause it. ‘We are just beginning to understand the ways that stress influences a wide range of diseases of aging, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain types of disability, even early death,’ says Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has been at the forefront of stress research for 30 years.”
Stress can also speed up aging in general. It can add years to the age of individual immune system cells, according to a study focused on telomeres, which are caps on the end of chromosomes. Whenever a cell divides, the telomeres in that cell get a little shorter and a little more time runs off the clock. When the telomere becomes too short, time runs out: The cell can no longer divide or replenish itself. This is a key process of aging, and it’s one of the reasons humans can’t live forever
The good news? There are plenty of things you can do to reduce your stress levels (and many may have positive effects on all aspects of your health!)
Ways to reduce your stress levels
- Identify what’s causing stress – Self-monitor throughout the day, and once you know the source you can develop a plan to address it. This may mean setting boundaries and saying no to certain things, asking for help, or simply scheduling time-outs to give yourself a break.
- Get enough sleep – According to an American Psychological Association survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. Check out this article on the importance of sleep and how to get more of it here.
- Exercise – Exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels in the short term, and over the long term. It also has a whole host of other health benefits. Read more about the positive effects of exercise here.
- Join a support group – Depending on the source of the stress, a support group can be a great way to help reduce your stress levels, whether you are a family caregiver, you’ve experienced a loss, or you’re suffering from certain medical conditions.
- Work on your positive thinking – The American Psychological Association explains: “In one study, researchers examined the association between “positive affect” — feelings like happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm — and the development of coronary heart disease over a decade. They found that for every one-point increase in positive affect on a five-point scale, the rate of heart disease dropped by 22 percent.” See more on the science behind positivity and health here.
- Get a pet – Many studies support the stress-lowering effects of having a dog, cat, or other animal companion. Read more about the benefits here.
- Attend a mind-body program or class – Some are specifically designed for seniors. Others may focus on chronic pain or specific ailments, such as heart disease.
- Have some fun – Playing games and socializing with friends can be a great way to reduce stress, and there are other benefits to your heart and brain health, too.
And if you need some quick stress-relief strategies, head over to our blog to read “Eight Quick, Science-Backed Ways to Reduce Caregiver Stress.”
By now, you’ve probably realized how important it is to manage your stress levels as you age. Family caregivers in particular are highly susceptible to stress, and while there’s no way to avoid stress completely, we can take action to reduce the amount we experience and prevent the negative effects on our health.
For family caregivers, this can mean bringing in some help from a professional caregiver.
If you’d like to learn more about how a caregiver can assist you and your parent, check out our service pages, and book a complimentary discovery call to talk with a client service specialist today.