Aging Well: Doing better when stress hits
Identifying and reducing burdens while making positive, long-term choices essential
January 24, 2011
Healthier Living Colorado
Is stress preventing you from making positive health choices? Healthier Living Colorado workshops help individuals learn to better manage stress and health issues to live happier and healthier.
Individuals ages 18 and older are invited to join a workshop from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, starting this week through Feb. 23, at Rollingstone Respite House. The cost is $20. Workshops are held regularly in Routt and Moffat counties. Register in advance by calling 970-871-7676.
Stress management tips
■ Keep a stress journal to identify regular stressors in your life and how you deal with them.
■ Avoid unnecessary stress. Pare down to-do lists, limit responsibilities and avoid environments or situations that spur stress.
■ Be assertive and respectfully communicate when something or someone is bothering you, and be willing to compromise.
■ Manage your time better. It’s hard to be focused and calm when you are stretched too thin.
■ Look at the big picture. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run and if it’s worth getting upset over.
■ Adjust your standards. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection.
■ Focus on the positive. Take moments to reflect on the good things in your life as well as your own qualities and gifts.
■ Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Instead focus on how you react to problems.
■ Share your feelings. Talking with a trusted friend or therapist can be cathartic even if there’s nothing you can do about a stressful situation.
■ Learn to forgive. Let go of anger and resentment.
■ Make time for leisure activities, social outings and doing things you enjoy.
■ Improve stress resistance with a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a nutritious diet.
■ Develop and practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, long baths, massage, exercise, reading, writing, crafts or other hobbies.
■ Avoid overeating, excessive alcohol use, drug use and other coping mechanisms that may compound the problem.
■ If you are feeling depressed, isolated, overly anxious or are simply overwhelmed by the prospect of managing stress in your life, seek the help of a mental health professional.
In the story of the three little pigs, one pig builds an abode strong enough to resist the wolf's wrath.
The pig's willingness to look at the problem wolf and prepare makes the difference in the story and, as it turns out, can make a difference in our lives when it comes to stress.
Stress management "is the extent to which we are able to identify what real demands we are likely to face and if we are willing to start developing resources for that," said Tom Traynor, a Steamboat Springs psychologist who conducts stress management workshops.
The dodgy wolf is an apt caricature of stress, which is designed to activate the body's emergency response to danger. Heartbeat and breathing quicken and physical changes happen to spur reaction.
Too much stress throughout time, however, sneaks up on a person, causing potentially serious health problems and deteriorating quality of life.
Studies suggest stress speeds aging while exacerbating or increasing a person's risk for conditions including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems and asthma.
Demands vs. resources
Stress, unlike the three little pigs, is complicated. Some stressors can be altered for better results, such as shortening to-do lists or avoiding rush hour. But many stressors, such as relationship problems, job loss, illness or death of a loved one, involve difficult circumstances that cannot be changed.
As Traynor explains, a person's ability to cope with various types of stress is largely dependent on the resources they have to manage that strain on their lives.
Not surprisingly, a person who is financially stable, healthy and has a strong network of family and friends is better equipped to handle life's trials and tribulations than someone less fortunate.
As we age, stress can become more difficult to manage in the face of changing physical and mental capabilities, limited incomes and dwindling support networks.
"As technology or life's changes occur around us, we have this frightening sense that we have got to learn how to cope all over again," said Traynor who, at 63, is finding various aspects of daily life, such as opening bottles, taking out the trash and shoveling snow, are harder to accomplish.
"You start to stack up the demands that 20 years ago were quite easy for me to manage when I built the house … now I have to find coping skills," he said.
Traynor cannot reverse the aging process, but his willingness to pursue new ways to address challenges – buying a snow blower, hiring someone to shovel, using adaptive aids or taking a strength training class – will determine how stress affects his health in the long run.
Building coping skills
Stress management starts with identifying burdens associated with our current situations and, ideally, demands we are likely to face in the future.
If we can begin to develop resources to prepare for those challenges — starting a savings account, making health improvements, etc. — then we will have more control over the demands of stress from situations beyond our control.
This concept can be boiled down to a flat tire. Individuals who have taken the time to determine where the spare tire is on their car and how to work the jack will have less anxiety and emotion when they have to change the tire.
For some people, preparing for a future flat tire — or any life challenge they may encounter — is not worth the anxiety or worry of thinking about the situation. That's fine, as long as they have taken time to consider demands and acceptable levels of stress in their lives, Traynor said.
While the prospect of coping with predictable and unpredictable life issues is overwhelming, there are general resources we can develop that will help us through many hurdles to come.
These include making healthy lifestyle choices including exercise and nutritious eating, and learning relaxation techniques and other coping strategies, to help our bodies and minds resist stress and avoid coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol that will compound problems in the long term.
Perhaps the most important resources we can have are strong connections to friends, family and our communities. Nurturing these relationships adds meaning to our lives and provides invaluable support when all other cards are stacked against us.
"I think when people are facing real problems such as serious illness or a layoff at their job, they are truly up against demands that physically and psychologically they have no idea how to cope with," Traynor said. "At that point, if they have a network of people they can go to, they are better off than those without those networks."
This article includes information from http://www.webmd.com.
Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit http://www.agingwelltoday.com or call 970-871-7676.