Most adults face predictable and challenging situations in later life. These situations usually involve change. Some life changes may br planned or expected (retirement) and some may come by surprise, representing a lack of ppersonal control (death of a lovedone, disability).
Whether the aging experience is perceived as positive or negative, it is certain to be a time of many stressors simply because of all the changes that late life brings. When humans need to continuously adapt to change, their minds and bodies are poised for response and action. There is a release of stress hormones that, with continuous stress, can remain too high for too long. Human brains and bodies need periods of rest and from stressors to renew energy and provide balance. Even good stress takes its toll on the body and the mind. With any kind of stress, people become fatigued and more vulnerable to illnesses of all kinds.
With some forethought, people can develop positive coping skills to handle stress more constructively. Certainly, diet and exercise are important factors in supporting the mind and body at any time. Positive thinking is another powerful tool to combat the negative effects of stress.
The following exercises promote positive thinking and behaviors.
- Breathing: The conscious process of breathing stimulates a real relaxation response in the body. The trick is to breathe slowly and deeply, expanding the belly, holding the breath in for a moment and then slowly exhaling. Take time to do this when you feel tension or other triggers that indicate stress.
- Visualization: The technique of visualization is achieved by imagining yourself in a situation and walking yourself through that situation in a positive way, envisioning the positive outcome you would want for yourself. An example of this would be visualizing yourself feeling confident and secure in the office of a new doctor. You can visualize yourself asking the questions and making the statements that you feel are important in getting your health needs met. Practicing this visual exercise will increase the likelihood that you will be able to accomplish your goals in the given situation.
- Positive Self-Talk: Sometimes our own internal voices and perceptions can be our worst enemy. Positive self-talk is the practice of treating ourselves as we would a loved one, with encouragement, support and affirmation. Telling yourself that you are lovable, worthy and deserving is a good place to start. When the negative voices of doubt or criticism creep into your thinking, you have the power to identify them as self-defeating. Identifying negative thoughts is an achievement in itself. The second challenge is to replace the negative with positive – and it can take some practice. It might even feel silly, but it works. Use gentle, kind and positive statements to validate your intentions and to stimulate positive behaviors. An example would be to catch yourself thinking “I’m such an idiot, where did I put those keys!” and instead say to yourself “OK now, you were rushing when you put the keys down so just relax and retrace your steps. You’ll find your keys and there is no need to worry.”
- Flexibility: There are studies that show the importance of flexibility in coping with the changes and challenges that life presents. Though some personalities are naturally more flexible, a person who has been more rigid throughout life can learn practices that promote flexibility. These would include the practice of acceptance of life situations and circumstances, relaxation of expectations that tend to lead to disappointment or resentment, and the release of pressure on yourself and others to adhere to a particular agenda or schedule.
- Development of a support group: Making internal and external changes in life can spawn feelings of fear, confusion and angst. Oftentimes, people feel alone in their experiences. The reality is that many others have walked the same path. Through the sharing of common experiences and feelings, as happens in support groups, people tend to gain strength, support, clarity and hope. The development of coping skills is a potential outcome of support group participation that can help reduce stress in all areas of life. There are support groups for all kinds of situations and, though it may feel awkward at first, a majority of participants report positive gains from the experience.
- Spiritual practices: Spiritual practices can be a very personal matter for people and there is definitely no single activity or belief that fits all people. Many people find comfort in faith, and though their expressions of faith vary, the common outcomes of faith include a sense of purpose, hope, peace and security. Activities of prayer and meditation help many people through times of great stress. Generally, meditation refers to a practice of releasing thoughts that are distracting or troubling so that they may receive the experience of calm. Prayer is likened to communication and/or worship to a higher power. It is common for older adults to re-examine spirituality as they seek to make sense of their lives, ponder the issues of mortality and wonder at what life has meant.
- Plan for personal fitness: Stress can take a serious toll on physical health. It can exacerbate all other health conditions and leave the body exhausted and defeated. On the other hand, a healthy body is better equipped to ward off stress. Diet and exercise are key ways to both promote personal health and fight the negative effects of stress. Small changes in diet and exercise can start today, and nobody is ever too old to experience real and immediate benefits from healthier eating and physical movement. Success with a health and fitness plan is more likely when you make changes that are appealing and fit with your lifestyle. Input from health care professionals can assist you in making changes that best support your health needs and personal goals.
- Remain engaged: Many people mistakenly believe that stress comes from outside pressures and influences. However, large chunks of time spent alone can be highly stressful to those who have lived a life of activity with meaningful relationships. Human beings are social animals, and for most people, social contact remains important throughout the lifespan. Unfortunately, too many older people withdraw from community participation without much notice. Perhaps they can no longer drive, don’t feel well or have lost their network of friends. Our culture could do better at reaching out to keep older adults in the fold of their communities. Research has demonstrated the importance of activity participation on an individual’s physical and mental health. When barriers arise that interfere with an older person’s level of social, civic or physical engagement, it is important to develop a plan to enable meaningful participation in life. The key word here is “meaningful” as stress will increase if a person is forced into activity or relationships not of their choice.
- Medications and alcohol: Unfortunately, many of our cultural messages support the notion that a pill or a drink can bring relief from pain, discomfort and stress. Though there may be a temporary experience of relief, drugs and alcohol can make problems worse and prevent the use of more effective and health promoting strategies. Too many older adults slip into a pattern of medication / alcohol misuse or dependence because it is quick and easy. The big lie is that the problems go away. In fact, the misuse of medications, drugs and alcohol will ultimately make everything worse. It is critical that older people understand the different effects and additional risks of drugs and alcohol on an aging body. Medications that are prescribed to relieve stress related symptoms (i.e. anxiety and sleep disorders) should be monitored and additional stress reduction strategies should be used so that a person does not have to rely on medication alone. A common example of this relates to the disruption of sleep that can come from stress. Over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs might be used to ensure a “good night’s sleep”. However, these medications can have negative effects in the long term and may result in further sleep disorders and a drug dependence. In this case, it would be best to develop a “sleep hygiene” plan to promote sleep success in addition to the medications. An individual could then try to taper off the medications, using the new sleep strategies that pose no health threats.