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Learning to cope with stress

Have you ever felt your heart pounding on a rollercoaster or a knot in your stomach before a public speaking event? If the answer is yes, then you’re well-acquainted with how the stress hormone feels in your body. For many people, stress is a part of everyday life and while your heart might not race when you're worrying about money, if it keeps you up at night, you may be experiencing chronic stress. When stress is long-lasting, it can lower your immune function, increase your risk of disease, and accelerate the aging process.

Remember that catchy, number one song from the 80s, Don’t worry, be happy? Probably…because the song was hard to forget! The singer Bobby McFerrin was definitely onto something when he sang the lyric - ‘In your life expect some trouble, when you worry you make it double’.  Worrying can magnify existing problems and elevate your stress level until it becomes chronic. So, when life’s challenges are getting you down, what can you do to manage that stress?

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at how stress affects your body.

Out for an evening walk on a warm summer night, a dog suddenly barks and jumps at the fence, startling you. You feel that rush of adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure. This in turn increases your energy level and prepares you to run as fast as you can away from that threat. Commonly referred to as the flight or fight response, this mechanism developed to help us react quickly as a means of survival. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is also released in your body, suppressing any non-essential functions like your immune and digestive systems.

Now it would be great if that stress response was only activated during a physical threat. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Your body may react to a psychological stress as well. You’ve probably heard the expression, ‘I’ve been worried sick’. If you do worry a lot, higher levels of cortisol will circulate through your blood for longer periods of time. This can have a serious impact on your health.

Studies have shown that chronic stress lowers immune function, leaving you more vulnerable to illness and disease. According to an online article from McGill University, high levels of cortisol can suppress your lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in your immune system and helps fight infection. Chronic stress can also contribute to cognitive decline and can increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

So now that we’re feeling stressed out about stress, here’s what we can do about it.

The first step is figuring out the source of your stress. Take some time to observe your mood throughout the day… what makes you feel anxious, fearful or angry? This will be easier for some people to identify than others. Declining health, financial worries and a loss of control are three commonly reported sources of stress in older adulthood.

The second step is asking for help. Talking with a friend, family member or healthcare provider can often release pent up stress.  Studies have also shown that feeling socially connected can minimize the negative effects of stress.  Opening up to a trusted friend and letting them know you’re struggling can relieve some of the mental tension. That friend may also offer a practical solution or at the very least, give you a new perspective on the problem.

Exercise and eating a well-balanced diet are often cited as key components to any stress management strategy. Exercise is a welcome stress buster, as it helps counteract fatigue, a side-effect of chronic stress. The rhythmic flow of a good walk for example, can relax your mind and physical activity also releases endorphins, the feel-good hormone! It’s also essential to set aside time each day for things that make you happy and bring you joy. Maybe you love doing puzzles, listening to music, or even hitting the links for a game of golf. Relaxing hobbies can be a perfect anti-dote to stress.

There are also resources that can help you cope with stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association is a great place to start if you are looking for coping strategies. According to their online article, it’s important to remember that stress triggers are different for everyone, and we can never completely eliminate them from our lives, “stress is part of being human – no one can eliminate all stress from their life. The goal of stress management is to bounce back from problems or challenges and maintain wellness.” Talking to your healthcare provider can also help you access mental health and wellness resources. If you are caring for an older adult and looking for supportive resources, you can also download a free copy of our Senior Service Guide. 

So what’s the moral of the stress story? On this beautiful July day, eat a healthy, well-balanced meal, go for a walk, take a deep breath, call a friend and don’t worry, be happy.

This article is meant to be informational in nature and should not replace the advice of a trained healthcare professional.

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