Stress is like taxes and death – one of life’s certainties — but as we age, the types of stress we face and our ability to handle it changes, and not always for the better.
“Contributors to stress and anxiety vary with age,” says Peter Lucchio, a clinical psychologist who works with athletes at the Hartford HealthCare Bone & Joint Institute’s Center for Musculoskeletal Health at Hartford Hospital. “In a person’s youth, they might experience anxiety related to finding a profession, whereas older adults might experience anxiety related to medical issues and/or mortality.”
The way our bodies naturally protect us against stress also break down gradually with age, and it becomes increasingly important that we find ways to reduce and manage stress.
Lucchio says it’s not that older people are necessarily more stressed or anxious, but that age can impact resilience by changing one’s social network and connectedness to others. These, he says, are both important ways to manage stress.
Physically, stress can take its toll on the body by causing wounds to heal slower and colds to linger longer. Emotionally, older brains don’t regulate stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as efficiently. When the level of these hormones gets too high, it’s linked to a host of health problems from high blood pressure to a weakened immune system. It can actually speed up the aging process, too.
The easiest gauge that stress is becoming too difficult to manage, Lucchio says, is when it begins to impact one’s day-to-day functioning.
Some signs may include:
- You’re always sick and can’t get over it.
- You always have a headache.
- You have trouble concentrating.
- You are having trouble remembering things.
- Your back and/or neck always bother you.
- You’re always tired but never seem to get a good night’s sleep.
- Your outlook is always negative.
- You suffer from constant mood swings.
To help tame the stress, Lucchio suggests speaking to a primary care provider about the problem. The provider may offer a referral to a behavioral health specialist. Other potential solutions include:
- Practice deep breathing, meditation or yoga.
- Stay connected to family and friends.
- Maintain a positive attitude about life in general.
- Exercise (walks, bike rides, water aerobics).
- Eat a healthy diet.