Stress can make you sick, but there are ways to stop that from happening
By Wendy Haaf
The daily grind can be stressful, but if you’ve already retired, you know that stress doesn’t magically disappear when you blow out the candles at your retirement party.
Those over 55 may even be more prone to experiencing stress than are younger people: according to a 2017 report from the Calgary Vital Signs Foundation, 90 per cent of seniors in Calgary are subjected to daily stress, compared with just 69 per cent of millennials. Older people can find themselves under intense prolonged stress (caused, for example, by major life transitions such as losing a spouse) at a time when their brains and bodies may be less able than they were, due to aging and medical conditions, to shake off the negative consequences.
“Chronic exposure to stress can really impact older adults, who may be less resilient simply because of more limited reserves as we get older, but also because stress can exacerbate pre-existing mental or physical health conditions,” says Elena Ballantyne, a clinical neuropsychologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (Ontario).
However, there are a number of simple everyday strategies that can dial down stress and improve our capacity to withstand it. What’s more, research has shown that even when our defences give way and we begin to suffer the effects of stress, there are techniques that can bolster our mental well-being.
If you do nothing else to combat stress, build physical activity into your weekly routine.
“Exercise is quite effective for reducing stress,” Ballantyne says. But just as important, “it reverses some of the impact of stress on the brain itself. It makes brain cells healthier again and can lead to the creation of new neurons and to getting those branches back onto the neurons, particularly in areas of the brain related to attention and memory,” she adds.
While a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity is ideal, any amount that you can manage is better than none. “It doesn’t take a ton of exercise,” Ballantyne says. “Spurts of 10 or 15 minutes here and there can really make a difference, particularly in combination with other strategies.”
“No matter what your general tolerance level is, it goes down when you’re stressed, because your body is filled with stress hormones; caffeine is just another stressor,” says Kate Partridge, a registered psychologist at the London Mindfulness Clinic in London, ON. Partridge says. To find out if that seemingly soothing cup could be having the opposite effect, she suggests the following experiment: “Go on a caffeine holiday for four weeks, after a gradual cutback.”
Prolonged attention to one task can lead to stress and exhaustion. “Take breaks throughout the day and give yourself permission to pause and just be,” Partridge advises.
Turn off your phone and take a brief stroll, or find a quiet spot and sit, focusing only on the sights, sounds, and smells around you. And since some research suggests that spending time in a park or natural setting is particularly calming, causing levels of stress hormones to plummet after just 15 minutes, try spending some of that regular downtime in the great outdoors.
Pursue a Passion
Enjoy photography? Always yearned to learn how to paint or play guitar? Dive in. There’s evidence that hobbies, ranging from reading and knitting to playing an instrument, can cut stress levels and leave us feeling more relaxed and rejuvenated.
Often when we’re feeling tense and overwhelmed, we abandon or put off “frivolous” activities such as meeting a friend for coffee or lunch, attending a book club, or going to other group meetings, but that’s precisely when it’s most important to make time for such pursuits.
“Connecting with friends and family, doing group activities, joining a seniors’ centre or a club— in short, interacting with other people—is very healthy, not only for our mental health and for reducing stress, but for our brain health, as well,” Ballantyne says.
Eat a Healthy Diet
While some of us might choose to reach for a glass of wine or comfort foods rich in fat, sugar, or both when we’re feeling anxious and stressed, there’s evidence that, like caffeine, alcohol and sweets can exacerbate stress. On the other hand, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish seem to help quell it, as does eating at regular times and not skipping meals. And eating plans that are rich in the latter group of foods are linked with a lower incidence of a host of health problems, including heart disease and dementia.
Enlist Practical Help
If you’re struggling to keep up with everyday tasks such as housework, home maintenance, and cleaning due to other commitments, such as caring for a parent or partner, look for ways you might be able to hand some of those duties off to someone else.
“For example, see if your local grocery store can deliver groceries or your pharmacy can deliver your prescriptions,” Ballantyne suggests. Perhaps you could consider hiring a cleaning service or finding respite care so you can slip away for a few hours of R and R.
Talk to Your Doc
If you’ve been feeling stressed, sad, or anxious most of the time for several weeks or your distress is interfering with two or more areas of your life (for example, relationships and your ability to carry out day-to-day activities), Ballantyne advises checking in with your family physician.
“A good thing to do before you do anything else is to get a medical assessment of your physical health,” she says, “because stress can cause medical issues that you may not be aware of, such as hypertension. You need to make sure that you’re catching all of this and getting any treatment you need to manage those conditions.”
Get Extra Help
“If stress is a major problem and you have access to private insurance, seeing a mental health professional to come up with individualized strategies is certainly very important,” Ballantyne says. If you don’t have private insurance, your doctor, area health unit, or local hospital may be able to suggest services in your community that are publicly funded or low-cost.
Whether or not you end up needing a bit of extra help dealing with your stress, however, one thing is clear: taking care of your mental health with strategies such as accepting assistance from others and making time for hobbies is no more selfish than taking care of your physical health by eating well and exercising. In fact, both are equally important—and interconnected. “By keeping your body healthy,” Ballantyne says, “you’re keeping your brain healthy, and vice versa.”