As a person grows older, it's natural to fret about an expanding slate of concerns: changing social roles, living on a fixed or limited income, physical decline, chronic illness, loss of independence.
“Whether it’s retirement or an ‘empty nest,’ changing social roles can be difficult and confusing," says Jennifer Baker, a social worker and mental health therapist with CHI Bergan Psychiatric Associates.
"Most of us draw our feelings of self-worth and identity from what we do professionally, she says. "Once we retire, many people feel like they’ve lost their sense of self. As children move out, and our spouses start staying home, many homemakers must abandon routines and learn a new way of relating to others in their family. Some of us may have to assume responsibility for aging parents or grandchildren, which can be a huge stressor.”
The consequence of not managing high stress levels are, themselves, stress-inducing. The list includes digestive problems, cardiovascular problems, stroke, cancer, a weaker immune system leading to more frequent and severe infections, and mental illness such as depression and anxiety.
Here’s reason to relax: coping with stress, while critically important, does not have to be complicated. Baker shares six straight-forward stress-management strategies:
- Practice radical acceptance, which sounds like this: “I may not like it, but I can’t change it for right now, so I am going to focus on more positive things.”
- Embrace relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, yoga or tai chi, and progressive muscle relaxation.
- Use humor.
- Lean on social supports. See friends and family at least once a week, if not more. Keep up with technology and utilize social media and other evolving ways to connect with others.
- Utilize mindful meditation. Immerse yourself in the present moment by engaging all of your senses.
- Challenge and rewrite unhelpful thoughts. Be aware when your thinking is catastrophic, all-or-nothing, or overly negative. Look for evidence to support your views and change the thought to something more accurate. For example, “I’m sure there will be a tornado” changes to “There could be a tornado, but there might not be one either.”
For that next-level kind of stress relief, Baker recommends:
- Finding a sense of purpose. Get involved in community events. Take a class. Get a part-time job. Learn a hobby. Volunteer. Engage in a faith community or a support group.
- Taking time for introspection. Whether you are religious, spiritual or an atheist, we can all benefit from evaluating our lives from time to time. Think about the person you have been and who you would like to become. Evaluate your decisions. Make peace with those around you. Come to terms with the life you have lived and set goals for the future.
Baker also stresses the importance of good self-care: getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, limiting or avoiding alcohol and tobacco use, seeing your physician regularly, engaging in therapy if you need added support, and “exercising, exercising, exercising.”
The benefits of making the effort and managing our stress in a positive way (versus turning to alcohol, overeating or isolation) are immense.
“Risks of hypertension, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, cancer and mental illness all go down when we manage our stress, and we can expect to live longer, happier, healthier lives in the process,” Baker says.
In addition to being healthier and happier ourselves, she says, our family and friends will also benefit “both from better quality time with us and from the good example that we set for them.”