Reducing stress is a major concern for seniors, often even more so for those with a chronic illness or a sedentary lifestyle. When we’re under stress, the brain releases hormones that support our “fight or flight” instincts. It’s a survival mechanism that makes us temporarily stronger and faster. However, “In late life, when the immune system tends to show functional decline, the effects of stress are especially potent. Stress can not only mimic, but also exacerbate the effects of aging,” as revealed in a National Institutes of Health study.
Moreover, seniors who lead an inactive existence, whether by choice or because of a disability, generally are even more susceptible to the effects of stress hormones because lack of exercise further weakens their natural defenses.
Here are some steps that can help you reduce levels of stress in your daily life:
Talk about it. Freely discussing the stresses you feel with someone who is trusted and caring can serve as a safety valve, relieving at least some of the stress for short periods. It also can be revelatory; you may learn something about what is causing stress that was not previously apparent, opening the way for a new course of action. Seeing a professional therapist may be most helpful, but if that is not feasible, talking to a family member or close friend is useful.
Find a “relaxation response.” According to the Harvard Medical School, “a big part of stress management focuses on triggering the opposite of the stress response: the relaxation response,” which helps lower blood pressure, heart rate and the stress hormones themselves. Yoga, tai chi, meditation and deep breathing exercises are examples of relaxation response triggers. Listening to classical music can have a similar effect.
Establish a good sleeping environment. Sleep is very important for stress reduction for a number of reasons, including the fact that levels of stress hormones are reduced during a sound sleep. Try to ensure that your nighttime environment is as conducive as possible to good slumber. Keep the room dark, except perhaps, for a small safety night light for going to the bathroom. Avoid eating heavy meals near bedtime, consuming caffeine or watching late night TV.
Pursue a more active and stimulating lifestyle. A dull, inactive daily routine offers no defense against stress. Make every effort to be as active as your physical condition allows. Take long walks when the weather is good, attend shows and lectures, participate in a book club or perhaps volunteer for a worthy cause. Go dancing or engage in aerobics or a mild form of sports, if feasible (and with a doctor’s prior approval, of course). All of these activities provide something to look forward to and may instill a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, which can counter feelings of stress.
Focus on a balanced diet. Eat healthy foods and reduce consumption of processed and sugary products. Emphasize vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and lean protein. Restrict use of alcohol and caffeine to modest levels. A healthy diet helps the body combat excessive stress.
Eat dark chocolate? Yes, according to the Center for East-West Medicine at UCLA, dark chocolate can “help relieve stress at the molecular level,” and also can be beneficial for people “suffering from high levels of anxiety.” While any dietary restrictions should be followed, a list of “comfort” foods that may help alleviate stress is available.
In general, give careful thought to identifying the sources of stress that affect you and take positive action to reduce or eliminate them to the fullest possible extent.