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Lessening the stress in April

Posted on 17th April 2018

April was declared Stress Awareness Month in the US in 1992, with health care professionals joining forces each spring to talk about the causes and cures of this modern epidemic.

What is stress? It is a mismatch between what life may be throwing at us and our ability to respond well. While anxiety is associated with stress, this is a symptom not a cause, arising from the fact that we may be overstretched or overwhelmed. The conversation around stress normally centres on younger people. However, the over-60s have their own stressors too.They may struggle with failing health and dwindling finances at a time when their coping mechanisms have been reduced.

Unfortunately, the body's natural defences against stress gradually break down with age. SeniorLine – Ireland’s only dedicated listening service for older people – hears daily from stressed older callers. Peter*, 78, lives alone in remote Connemara. He can no longer drive and depends on others for shopping and some personal care. “I worry if anything happened to me on my own,” he says. Maire*, 73, is also on her own. She feels fearful at night, and is glad that summer is on the way: “In the dark, I imagine I hear noises. My husband is dead nine years, but I’ll never get used to living alone”, she says. Brian*, 68, has rheumatoid arthritis and is in constant pain. ”It wears you down”, he says.

Our stressed brains sound the alarm by releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These provide energy, the ‘fight or flight’ mode, but too much stress too often is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. The flow of stress hormones can be especially hard on older brains in general, and several studies have found that high cortisol goes hand in hand with poor memory, so certain ‘senior moments’ could be linked to stress.

The good news is that we can put what we know about stress and aging to work for us and learn to reduce our stress load. How? Doing our best to maintain a positive outlook is one way. A study by Yale University found that positive people live an average seven years longer than the glass half-empty brigade, in part because they feel they have more to live for. 

Some suggestions to reduce stress such as eating more quinoa or taking up yoga may not strike a chord with older people.  What helps SeniorLine callers when they feel anxious?  Peter* gets comfort from his cat, Blackie, and says his cat’s greeting every morning gives him a reason to get up each day.  Maire* says her religion is important to her. “I hand over my worries, and I can feel more peaceful,” she says.  Keeping in touch with the outside world every day helps Brian “I am an avid radio listener, the radio is a great companion,” he said.  * not real names

Staying close to friends and family is an excellent way to cut down on stress, especially for older people. The American Journal of Health Promotion finds that social support can slow down older stress levels. Other studies show that conversation, meetings, happy times together can help older people stay engaged and mentally sharp, and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer Disease.  

Exercise, a proven stress-buster may be especially valuable in later years. Regular walks, golfing, swimming and more, helps to keep us strong and independent. A recent study found that physically fit women in their mid-60s had the same response to stress as a group of unfit women in their late 20s. In the end, anything that reduces unnecessary stress will make the later years more enjoyable. Some people may need to pace themselves into growing old gracefully. Others may want to try breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques. Still others may successfully find some new hobbies and interests  - it is never too late to reduce our stress.

SeniorLine Freephone 1800 80 45 91 open 10 till 10 every day of the year

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