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Stress

“Eustress” in Greek, literally means “good stress.” It is the term given to the type of stress that motivates and benefits individuals. “Distress” is the type of stress that feels more threatening and actually stimulates the stress response that involves the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which can be damaging to the brain and other organs of the body when the levels are too high for too long.

Stress affects our bodies, our minds, and our behaviors. People under a lot of stress may feel overwhelmed, anxious, helpless, or depressed.

Changes & Challenges

Most adults face predictable and challenging situations in later life. These situations usually involve change. Change can be stressful, even if it is for the good. Older adults tend to experience a lot of change — some expected (loss of income) and some over which people have no control (loss of the ability to drive). When stressors multiply, people are more vulnerable to mental health problems.

Common age related changes and challenges associated with stress include:

  • Caregiving for another person
  • Retirement
  • Increased leisure or unstructured time
  • Health problems
  • Reliance on others
  • Social adjustments
  • Financial changes
  • Loss of loved ones
  • Pain or disability
  • Relocation or housing changes
  • Negotiating new systems (i.e. health care benefits)
  • Medication use
  • Sensory decline (hearing, vision)
  • Mobility restrictions
  • Change in appearance
  • Development of new relationships
  • Cultural emphasis on the value of youth

Individual factors that contribute to negative stress responses include: lack of support, resistance to change in circumstances and routine, negative outlook on life and constant stress.

Physical signs of stress may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Back or neck pain
  • Digestive problems

If any of these symptoms last more than a few weeks, it is important to talk to a doctor or other health care professional. Prolonged stress interfaces with the body’s ability to fight illness and may result in brain changes that cause mental health problems.

With practice, people can handle stress more constructively. 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. Maintaining good mental health includes planning and practices for handling stress and developing positive coping skills.

Caregiver Stress

Caregiving can be a gift. It can also be a burden. Helping a sick or needy person, especially a loved one, can take its toll on the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Stress is a common outcome of the physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding work that caregiving entails.

It is very important that caregivers monitor their levels of stress and take action when stress levels are high.

The following are indicators of caregiving stress:

  • Health problems
  • Fatigue
  • Guilt
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Denial

Caregivers are at higher than normal risk for mental health disorders, and should have a plan of self-care and stress management early in the caregiving process.

It is common for caregivers to become more involved without noticing how much time and energy is gradually being given to the job. When the symptoms of stress compound, gradually (or perhaps suddenly), caregivers can feel burned-out, exhausted and “at wits-end.” Unfortunately, caregiver stress can contribute to abusive behavior.

A caregiver self-care plan might include red flags for stress symptoms and steps to take to keep stress at a relative minimum. It might also include support and resource information to use when needs are greater.

Some questions caregivers can ask themselves:

  • What are reasonable and realistic limitations I have with regards to my physical ability to provide care?
  • How can I make sure that I give myself time each day to take care of my own personal needs and responsibilities?
  • Do I know all I can about the illness, limitations and supports of the person I care for so that my expectations are realistic and I know how to respond to their needs and behaviors?
  • Do I feel comfortable with the personal care needs (bathing, toileting, etc) of the person I care for? If not, how can I handle that situation?
  • Who can I talk to about the feelings I have about caregiving and know that I will be supported and encouraged? Who can help me problem solve when I feel stuck?
  • How will I know when it’s time to get more help for the work that I do or the feelings I’m having.

Self-Care Strategies

The following are self-care strategies that one can put into a self-care plan:

Nutrition

  • Reduce intake of refined sugar, caffeine, saturated fat, salt, junk
  • Eat “real” food (not highly processed or “junk” food)
  • Consume more vitamin rich, high fiber foods
  • Remember meals
  • Plan ahead for hungry times
  • Drink plenty of water (the sense of thirst can diminish in older age)

Exercise

  • People who exercise regularly have more energy and better moods. They sleep better and feel healthier
  • Exercise results in the release of biochemicals that ward off stress, depression, anxiety and muscle tension
  • Start with slowly with new activities and consult a doctor for the best exercise plan for your health status and goals

Self-help activities

  • Take slow and deep breaths
  • Replace negative thinking with positive thinking
  • Forgive (yourself as well as others) & practice being more accepting of limits and realities
  • Cultivate a personal spiritual or meditative practice
  • Engage in a hobby, take a class, learn a new skill
  • Keep a journal or diary
  • Cultivate a network of support, call on friends, neighbors and family to remain connected and to receive support for hard work and difficult feelings

Seek professional help

  • Consult your physician or health care provider when stress is lasting
  • Consult a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, pastoral counselor, community mental health clinic, nurse, stress clinic, family support agency any of the many supports that are available to help you manage your work, your health and your feelings

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