We all live with it. Yet did you know that there are easy ways to stop stress before it causes harm to your body, mind, and spirit? Let’s think about the stressors that hit us daily — mortgage and utility payments, crowded freeways, traffic jams, rising interest rates, declining mutual funds, increased taxes, upgrading, downsizing, child care, self-care, elder care, health care… and who cares! Is it any wonder that most of us feel as if we need stronger, made-to-order defense mechanisms just to make it through the day?
But what happens when you add to your list of daily stressors a host of new changes that occur at midlife — hair loss, weight gain, insomnia, menopause, high blood pressure, low bone density, high cholesterol, low energy, lumps, bumps, sags, bags,… and gravity? Could some of these health changes and decline in vitality be accentuated by unresolved or nagging stress? The answer is yes!
Sure, you can usually coast to your mid-30s with the luck of good genes. But there will come a guaranteed time of awakening — usually during midlife — when genetics subside and lifestyle factors take over. Surprisingly, only about 30 percent of the characteristics of aging are genetically based; the remaining 70 percent are not.
Science now recognizes that the mind and body are interconnected to an extent far surpassing previous assumptions and that physical health and emotional well-being are closely linked. Aging well and an increased health span relate directly to the functions of a strong immune system, which plays a critical role in our vulnerability to disease.
A hyperactive immune system, for example, may lead to the development of an autoimmune disease such as arthritis or asthma. With a depleted immune system, the body is at risk of being overwhelmed by invading bacteria and viruses, resulting in cancer or other life-threatening diseases.
At several levels — and in markedly different ways — chemical changes that are directly related to altered emotional states can profoundly influence the immune system. These emotional states correlate with life’s stressors, such as extended working hours, unhealthy environments, and increasing demands from commitments, careers, and commutes.
All of these can ignite the aging process into high gear while presenting a definite obstruction to productivity, youthfulness, and health span (meaning the number of years you are healthy). In short, the deleterious combination of emotional stress and increased years is why so many of us get sick or feel old long before our time. Is it any wonder that few of us enjoy the optimal health span and longevity within our grasp? In spite of modern medical advances and knowledge about healthy lifestyles, the United States ranks a discouraging eleventh in the world in life expectancy.
While no one is immune to age-related changes, there are some smart steps to make stress work for you by controlling your body’s response. In other words, stress can be viewed as a challenge as you take positive steps to get in control — and a sense of control is necessary for a balanced, healthy life. What are some proactive steps?
1. Recognize warning signs.
Stress symptoms vary greatly from one person to the next, but the most universal sign of stress is a feeling of being pressured or overwhelmed. Other symptoms include:
physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, diarrhea)
problems getting along with others
changes in behavior at home (temper outbursts, unexplained anger, crying for no reason)
regression — behavior that is not age-appropriate
sleep patterns — nightmares, too little or too much sleep
communication difficulty — personality taking a change, such as a withdrawn person requiring much attention or an extrovert becoming withdrawn
impatience — seeming to have a short circuit in behavior
If you are experiencing a few of these characteristics, chances are good that your level of stress is excessive. If left untreated, stress can lead to permanent feelings of helplessness and ineffectiveness.
2. Realize that stress comes from your response to pressure.
No one can put undue pressure on you unless you accept this, so it is important to know your stress point — that load in life that you can handle — and eliminate any obligations or pressures that take you over this mark. It is often helpful to make a list of stresses in your life, including obligations and commitments. Some of these responsibilities you must live with, such as being part of a family, going to work, and volunteering in your church or community. But there are some obligations you can eliminate, such as too many extra commitments, if they are overloading your system.
Also, try to eliminate stressful situations in your life. Many of the factors creating the stress can be eliminated or avoided completely. Avoid stressful situations such as heavy traffic, loud noises, too many people, or making hasty decisions when you feel uptight. Accept those stresses that you cannot solve and learn to live with them — such as illness in the family, a limited budget, or problems with a coworker.
3. Try coping mechanisms that work
Breathing deeply, closing one’s eyes and imagining a peaceful scene, or relaxing different body parts intentionally are coping mechanisms some people use.
Prayer and meditation are wonderful “de-stressors.” Excessive stress hormones — such as cortisol — can be worked out of the system by exercise. Whether your program includes aerobics, walking, riding on a stationary bicycle, or gardening, this exercise will enable you to release the tension built up inside.
4. Look at your problems objectively.
We all have problems — those we can do something about and those we have no control over. Talk with someone about your concerns and needless worries. A death or illness in your family is a problem that you have no control over, yet a disagreement with your child can be solved if you talk about the problem.
5. Seek support before you feel overwhelmed.
Everyone needs someone to talk to — someone who will listen to problems, joys, and concerns. Professional therapists might offer support as well as other peers undergoing similar stresses. Often close friends or family members can assist you in stressful times as they listen without giving unsolicited advice. Leaning on your friends, family, or children can be a great asset during these moments.
6. Learn to say no.
Saying no can bring your stress to a manageable level. Write down several polite ways you could say no to a friend. For example, you might say:
“No, I am over my head at work already.”
“No, I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
“Yes, I do want to help with that fund-raiser, but I need to stay home this Thursday night.”
When you are able to follow through with your commitments, you can live your life without undue pressure and stress. In other words, sometimes saying no is the best weapon against feeling overwhelmed.
7. Maintain your regular routine.
This is especially important if you are undergoing a life crisis, such as a health problem, a career move, or serious problems at home. It is vital that you continue to get up each morning, get dressed, and plan your days just as you did previously in order not to fall into depression.
Our bodies and minds can handle some stress. But stress becomes magnified if you don’t get it out in the open and talk about it. Know yourself, realize your limitations, and keep commitments within the limits you can positively handle to avoid overload.