Stress and anxiety are the fight-and-flight instincts that are your body’s way of responding to emergencies. A large dog barking at you may spark the response. Fears and worries may also set off the instinct. For example, worry over a family member’s health or well-being is a common source of ongoing stress and anxiety. When stressful challenges occur, your body senses danger and responds by releasing hormones into your bloodstream, which speed up your heart, breathing, and other physical processes and prepare you to react fast to avoid the threat. This natural reaction is known as the stress response. It is designed to help you cope with short term stressors.
But research shows that long-term activation of your body’s stress response impairs your immune system’s ability to fight against disease and increases the risk of physical and mental health problems. For example, studies have shown that stress and anxiety in older adults are associated with the following: increased physical problems, such as disability and difficulty in carrying out activities of daily living; increased health problems, such as coronary artery disease; decreased sense of well-being and satisfaction with life.
Symptoms of Stress
Although stress effects individuals in different ways, if you are feeling stress, chances are you have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
- Sadness or depression
- Feeling pressured and hurried
- Irritability and moodiness
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
- Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
- Increased illnesses such as cold or flu
- Problems sleeping
- Feeling overwhelmed and helpless
- Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
- Sexual dysfunction
- Eating too much or not enough
Coping with Stress
Here are tips to help you choose coping strategies that will enhance your health, rather than continue the stress cycle in your body (alcohol, smoking, junk food):
- Reach out to connect with others. Participate in social and community activities. Social interaction and a sense of giving to your community enhance self-esteem and reduce stress.
- Take care of yourself. Get regular exercise, eat nourishing food, and maintain a healthy weight.
- Enhance enjoyment. Participate in activities you enjoy. Try to laugh every day. Listen to music, dance, learn a new language or join a club.
- Stay focused on positive things and avoid negative self talk such as “I can’t do that” or “I’m too old.” When your self talk is negative, it will increase your stress. Instead of thinking what you can’t do, remember what you can do.
- Connect with the people who are most meaningful to you. People with friends tend to be happier than those without. Stable social relations help you adjust to changes such retiring, moving, and losing loved ones.
- Remember stressful events that you successfully coped with in the past and repeat what worked before. You may have skills that you’re not connecting with because it’s hard to remember.
- Focus on addressing your problems instead of feeling helpless about them. Think of them as “challenges” or “tests” rather than as insurmountable obstacles.
- Learn and use relaxation techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, mindfulness and yoga are excellent stress relievers.
- If you are a caregiver, make use of support and education groups, as well as respite care, which provides time off for caregivers.