Stress and aging are two things in life that you’re going to have to deal with. While we are young, handling stress can be a little easier though. The effects of stress on our bodies actually change as we add on the years.
The good news is there are some easy ways to identify and relieve stress so you can improve your overall health. Before learning how stress affects the older population differently, you first have to ask how does stress affect the body?
Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress can have an impact on every system in your body. The reaction starts when your body senses danger or some other need to fight. Your muscles tense up, your breathing gets heavier, your blood pressure goes up. That’s because your body is releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol so you have the power and energy to address the threat.
That response is good in small doses, like when you bump into something but are able to react quickly and catch it before it falls over. The problem comes in when those feelings happen really often, or sometimes even all the time.
Constantly dealing with a state of stress can cause elevated blood pressure, problems with the immune system, anxiety, depression, heartburn, digestion issues, and more.
Stress and Aging
Now you’re probably asking, “so how do the effects of stress differ for older people compared to younger people?” The answer is two-fold.
Your Body Responds Differently
Physically speaking, our fitness levels drop, lung capacity decreases, and many people just tend to live a more sedentary lifestyle as we age. Because of those changes, the body can’t handle that natural stress response as adequately as it could when you were younger.
To add to the physical toll, many older adults also deal with chronic disease, which makes it harder to bounce back from physical ailments in general. Now an issue that was already pretty hard on your body hits even harder than it used to.
Then there are the mental effects of stress. Those stress hormones that flood the brain start to take a toll on memory and cognition, which can already be an issue for the older population. None of this is related to dementia or age-related memory loss, though.
The difference you’ll notice in the mental toll of stress from your younger days is actually related to sleep. Usually, a good night’s sleep will reset the brain and get your body back to normal. For many older people, getting restful sleep can be easier said than done. Not being able to do that mental reset can just make those cognitive issues related to stress worse over time.
Changes in What Triggers Stress
Think about the things that caused you to feel stressed when you were younger. That might be something like an increased workload at your job or getting behind on household duties. For older adults, those stressors shift to things like losing a loved one, feeling a sense of uselessness, or the loss of some physical abilities. The very nature of those stress triggers shifts how impactful the stress symptoms can be.
Stress Symptoms to Look Out For
Sometimes it’s hard to equate certain physical ailments to stress symptoms. If your body is in a stressed state almost constantly, you can kind of just get used to feeling the symptoms and think they’re normal. If you know the changes to look for, it’s a little easier to realize they are stress symptoms and not something else. It may even take a friend or family member to point them out to you.
Here are the stress symptoms to look for:
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in mood, such as anxiety, sadness, being more irritable, or overactivity
- Short-term memory or concentration difficulty
- Bad judgment that’s out of the norm
- Socially isolating
- Not paying attention to personal care
- Having more headaches or aches and pains in general
- Being sick frequently
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Excessive fatigue or trouble sleeping
As you can see, many of these symptoms could be easily construed as being caused by some other problem. Many of them are also indicative of depression. But when you get down to the root of the problem, it may just be stress that’s getting out of hand.
Stress Relief Activities
So now that you know the effects of stress and stress symptoms to watch out for, you need to learn some stress relief activities. Fortunately, there are several things you can do at home to help slow your mind down and melt that stress away.
Deep Breathing Exercises
You probably don’t put much, if any thought into breathing, but you should. Breathing is what gets the oxygen flowing through your blood vessels and gets rid of carbon dioxide.
Taking some time every day to sit and really focus on how you are breathing can help you more efficiently get your body supplied with the oxygen it needs. Take deep breaths so your stomach pokes out as you inhale. You’ll feel your lungs stretch downwards and your chest fill up with air. Then slowly exhale. You’ll start feeling the stress levels dropping after the first few breaths.
This method can be combined with your breathing exercises. Meditation has been shown to both relieve stress you’re dealing with now and help prevent you from getting too stressed out in the future.
Practicing meditation can take on many forms, but it usually is done by clearing your mind of any thoughts or focusing on one specific thought. You’ll spend about 5 to 20 minutes clearing your mind of those stressful thoughts and calming down your body and mind.
Sometimes a little mental stimulation can help melt away your stress. Things like putting together a puzzle or doing a crossword puzzle can get your mind totally focused on that problem-solving activity you’re doing instead of lingering on stressors.
Exercising your brain is also important for your cognitive health. Keeping your mind in shape by doing brain exercises can help prevent dementia and keep you sharp.
You can probably pinpoint some of the things that stress you out. Once you know what those things are, reducing their impact on your life will help you stay more relaxed. Yes, this is easier said than done, but really addressing the root of the stress can improve your life in many ways.
For example, if one of your main triggers for stress is a feeling of uselessness, you have to try keeping yourself busy. Finding somewhere to volunteer for a good cause or even picking up a part-time job are popular options. Even just setting up a weekly or monthly event where you go to an event with friends or family can work wonders. Getting out and socializing is also another way to exercise your brain.
Take a Deep Breath
Just take a minute to focus on your breathing, relax your shoulders, and remember you can handle this. Enjoying your golden years might take a little work at first. It’s just another one of those things life throws at us. Remember to breathe and enjoy the little things. It can always make those stressors seem a little less important.
If you keep feeling the effects of stress, you can always talk to your doctor about it. Sometimes your body may be having physical effects of stress that you can’t really pinpoint without a professional’s help. Your physician is there to help guide you on your way to Better Health.