The United States of Stress: And What to Do About It


On a recent Sunday, I was scrolling through the plethora of television and movie options available to me on Apple TV and came across a documentary on HBO titled The United States of Stress.  The program is moderated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN fame and explores the empirical science that makes one finding abundantly clear: Americans are dying as a result of chronic stress. 

The documentary explores the possible causes of what has become a sobering contemporary narrative: after decades of declining mortality rates, life expectancy in the United States has dropped – a result of what the Center for Disease Control describes as “deaths of despair” – those caused by the epidemic of alcoholism, opioid addiction, and suicide. 

Stress: A Medical or Clinical Context

In a medical or clinical context, stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure).  From an everyday perspective, stress can be related to caring for a loved one, endless traffic, financial strain, relational conflict, loss of cognitive and physical abilities, emotional trauma including regret and guilt, and managing chronic health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia. 

You likely have experienced the feeling of being over-burdened, over-extended, and just plain overwhelmed sometime within the last week.  The larger concern relates to the toxic toll chronic, compounding stress can take on the mind and body over time.  Increased stress hormones (part of the body’s mechanism for enacting the fight or flight response) can increase blood pressure and glucose levels escalating one’s risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  Immune deficiency, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and other mental health challenges are also aggravated by daily and chronic stress. 

Causes of Stress in Older Adults

According to Everyday Health’s special survey of 6,700 Americans on the subject of stress, financial insolvency, caregiver burden, and social isolation were reported as primary stressors by older adults.  Financial soundness is commonly correlated with freedom and independence – the ability to do and go where one desires – and getting older costs money.  Prescription drugs, doctor visits, long term care costs, caring for loved ones, and an increased cost of living all have the potential to break the bank.  Worrying about the “what ifs” of aging is highly stressful, particularly if you’re aging with limited connections or are entirely on your own.  The research on social isolation has indicated that loneliness is a chronic stressor that increases mortality rates and disability as we age, not to mention dementia and other neurocognitive disorders.  Caregiver burden, you’ve likely read or heard, can be excessively stressful and at least one study found that one-third of elderly spousal caregivers transition prior to their loved one being cared for.  The latter bit of information may be a sobering wake-up call for some of you.

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Stress: Strategies for Coping

Strategies for coping with stress have been identified by several longitudinal studies on aging as a significant factor in expanding longevity and limiting disability.  In fact, good habits, including what we eat, how we move our bodies and engage our minds, and our ability to maintain intimacy with our friends and families mitigate the negative effects of stress.  If you’ve read some of my earlier columns, you know that I identify with the movement in Positive Psychology – the study and practice of human flourishing.  Basically, positive psychologists are interested in learning the behaviors individuals and communities that exhibit lower levels of stress and increased rates of well-being, which may include the following:

  • Movement
  • Mindfulness
  • Gratitude
  • SMART Goals

Movement

Much of the research on stress reduction is focused on exercise.  Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

Mindfulness

Training our minds to catch worry and limit rumination is a customary intervention to mediate stress.  One common technique is to imagine that thoughts, including worry and guilt, are like clouds moving across the sky.  Notice your thoughts gently move from one end of your mind to the other and eventually they fall out of frame. 

Gratitude

Studies have found that intentionally listing what you’re grateful for daily can act as a balm to the negative effects of stress.  If you want to supercharge the effect of listing gratitude, thank a person who has been kind to you, either in person or vis-à-vis a written letter, email, or text. 

SMART Goals

An effective way to manage stress is to take action and clear your plate of stressors.  Self-esteem and confidence are direct results of setting goals and meeting them.  SMART goals are (s)trategic, (m)easurabe, (a)ttainable, (r)ealistic, and (t)ime sensitive.  Often stress is related to feeling out of control, akin to being a passenger in a car.  Goal setting and meeting those goals places you firmly in the driver’s seat. 

Strategies for Stress Management

For more strategies to manage stress and promote well-being, visit authentichappiness.com. Lastly, the South Bay Dementia Education Consortium is hosting our Spring workshop titled “Mapping the memory care journey: Where to go and who to talk to” on Tuesday, May 21st from 530p-7p at the Redondo Beach Main Library.  There is no cost to attend.  To RSVP, please call (310) 374-3426 x256. 

Until next time, be well!

Contact Hart2Heart for more information on stress management and senior care services.

Posted In: Senior Happiness