Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dealing with stress as we age

My wife and I have been watching the events in the US as they unfold and we both feel for our American friends as they move along a path that is bringing change. Change is part of life, but when change happens too fast it can cause stress. We all know what excessive stress can do to your energy. 

Dr. Barnet Meltzer, who is perhaps the most renowned doctor of preventative medicine in the United States said, “Stress is the tax you pay for not taking 100% responsibility for your life.”

There are many schools of thought about what stress means, here are two ideas to think about.
The first idea is:
1.   Many of us consider stress to be something that happens to us, the event could be an injury or a promotion, falling in/out of love.
2.   Others think that stress is what happens to our bodies, minds and behaviours in response to an event (e.g. heart pounding, anxiety, or nail biting). 

Interesting ideas however, I believe that while stress does involve events and our response to them, the event is not the most important factor. The most important factor, in my mind, is our thoughts about the situations in which we find ourselves.

A threat is not just a physical threat, the threat could be to our ego, our self esteem, our health or our energy. Stressors that tend to affect seniors are the loss of a loved one; too much unstructured time on your hands; a change in relationships with children; or a loss of physical abilities, such as vision, hearing, balance, or mobility issues.

We all experience a little stress from time to time. It's not so hard to handle when we're young. But as we age, coping with stress isn't as easy anymore.

The classic stress response is fight, or flight.  The body reacts the same for every event we call stressful. The following is from Dr. Wilsons webpage on how the stress response works:

Every event you experience, whether it’s a sleepless night or an argument, may trigger a dual chain reaction that prepares you to physically respond to the stressor. An initial alarm reaction happens before you’re even aware of it in which your brain and sympathetic nervous system directly stimulate your adrenal glands to produce epinephrine (adrenaline) to prepare every part of your body for immediate “fight or flight”.

This is quickly followed by a stress response regulated through your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It begins with a message from the hypothalamus in your brain and results in the secretion of adrenal stress hormones that prepare every part of your body to sustain “fight or flight” as long as necessary. In order to accomplish this, adrenal hormones are able to affect every cell and system in your body and brain.

When the brain senses danger or a need to fight, it sounds the alarm for action: it tells the muscles to tighten and signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones—such as adrenaline and cortisol. Those hormones make you breathe faster, getting more oxygen to your muscles, and they trigger the release of sugar and fat into the blood, giving your cells more energy. To accommodate these needs, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up. These physical changes are all part of the stress response, which is helpful if you need to jump out of the way of danger. Once the brain senses safety, body function returns to normal.

This routine isn't harmful if it occurs once in a while. But if you put your body through those paces frequently, or even constantly, you may suffer a cascade of dangerous and sometimes lasting effects such as high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, insomnia, heartburn, indigestion, and an increased risk for heart disease.

As we age, our body response differently to stress, and the symptoms may take longer to get over and may cause other problems for us. Symptoms of stress may include tension headaches, indigestion, heart palpitations, poor concentration, sleep difficulties, anxiety, irritability, crying, or overeating.

Stress may be having a physical impact on you that may include any underlying conditions you have, such as high blood pressure. Managing your stress is important at any age, but more important as we age.

A big part of stress management focuses on triggering the opposite of the stress response: the relaxation response, which helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones. Techniques to elicit the response include yoga, tai chi, meditation, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises. Eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise are also important, as is nurturing yourself by pursuing activities that bring you joy, and making time to socialize.
Additionally, not all situations that are labelled "stressful" are negative. The birth of a child, being promoted or moving to a new home may not be perceived as threatening. However, we may feel that situations are "stressful" because we don't feel fully prepared to deal with them.

All situations in life can be stress-provoking, but it is our thoughts about situations that determine whether they are a problem to us.  How we perceive a stress-provoking event and how we react to it determines its impact on our health.

We may be motivated and invigorated by the events in our lives, or we may see some as "stressful" and respond in a manner that may have a negative effect on our physical, mental and social well-being. If we always respond in a negative way our health and happiness may suffer. By understanding ourselves and our reactions to stress-provoking situations, we can learn to handle stress more effectively.

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