by Sally Trase
Life is full of stress. We all face many demands each day in our quest to take care of ourselves and our families, pay bills, deal with problematic relationships, and more. Our bodies treat these everyday tasks as threats.
I often feel I’m under attack and not sure how to fight back. The stress is chronic and feels like it controls my life at times.
Chronic stress is a prolonged and overwhelming response to daily challenges. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), chronic stress can impair our health with age. Fortunately, there are ways to manage and even alleviate it.
What is Chronic Stress?
According to a survey by ValuePenguin, 84% of Americans feel stressed or jittery at least one day a week. Additionally, 15% of respondents say they feel stressed every day. The increasing level of stress people experience is mind-boggling.
Acute stress, experienced in response to a specific situation can become chronic. Chronic stress is a prolonged and ongoing state of psychological and physiological tension that results from an inability to cope with the various stressors or demands in their life. Unlike acute stress, which is short-term, such as a deadline or a sudden event, chronic stress persists over an extended period. It can result from a variety of factors, including ongoing life circumstances, such as work pressures, financial difficulties, relationship problems, or health issues.
Stress that lasts a prolonged period of time can have long-term detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. It can also contribute to the development or exacerbation of various chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. It is important to recognize the signs of chronic stress and seek help or implement strategies to manage and reduce it.
Common Causes of Chronic Stress for Older Adults
Long-lasting stress affects people of all age groups, including those of us age 50Plus, though often for different reasons. Common causes in people our age include:
Age-related health problems, chronic illnesses, and the associated medical appointments, treatments, and medications can be a significant source of stress. Managing these health concerns, dealing with pain, and coping with limitations are often emotionally and physically taxing.
Economic challenges, such as living on a fixed income, rising healthcare costs, and the need for long-term care or support, can lead to financial stress. Many of us worry about financial stability and meeting daily expenses.
Loss and Grief
We often experience the loss of loved ones at our age, including spouses, friends, or family members. Coping with grief and loneliness is frequently an ongoing source of stress.
Feelings of isolation and loneliness are common, especially if our social circle diminishes due to retirement, relocation, or the loss of friends and family.
Some older adults may find themselves in the role of a caregiver for a spouse or other family members. Those of us who take care of a loved one know all too well how difficult it is to balance caregiving responsibilities with our own well-being.
Changes in Living Situation
Moving to a new residence, such as downsizing, transitioning to a nursing home, or adapting to new living arrangements, is often disruptive and stressful.
The fear of cognitive decline, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is a source of chronic stress for older adults. Many of us worry about our brain health as we age.
Loss of Independence
Age-related physical limitations and disabilities may result in a loss of independence, causing stress and frustration.
Making decisions related to end-of-life care, advance directives, and other aspects of aging can be emotionally taxing.
Technology and Social Changes
Adapting to new technology or societal changes is stressful for some of us.
Discrimination and Ageism
Experiencing discrimination or ageism, prejudice or discrimination based on age is emotionally distressing for many. Younger people don’t always value the wisdom accumulated from their years of experience.
Emotional support, open communication, and resources can help older adults manage stress. This may involve seeking medical and mental health assistance, staying socially engaged, and utilizing stress management techniques, such as relaxation exercises and mindfulness. Additionally, community organizations and support groups can be valuable resources for older adults experiencing chronic stress.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Many of us disregard or overlook the symptoms of chronic stress because they manifest slowly. That’s because our nervous system stays in vigilant, fight-or-flight mode, releasing stimulating hormones steadily.
Chronic stress can manifest in various behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms in older adults. Do you have any of these symptoms? As ongoing stress can affect both our mental and physical well-being, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and symptoms. It’s important to understand our individual responses to stress vary depending on the situation and the person. Not everyone experiencing chronic stress will experience all of these symptoms, but that does not mean that you are not affected by chronic stress.
Mental and Emotional Symptoms
Mental and emotional symptoms of chronic stress are often particularly challenging to deal with. Upon experiencing chronic stress, we often find ourselves grappling with persistent anxiety, a sense of impending doom, and an inability to relax. It’s not uncommon to feel irritable and easily agitated, which can strain our personal and professional relationships. Chronic stress can cast a shadow of persistent sadness, leading to feelings of depression, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. Decision-making and concentration may become difficult, contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed. Negative thinking patterns and mood swings further compound the emotional toll. It’s important to recognize these symptoms, seek support, and implement stress management strategies to live a meaningful life.
The physical symptoms of chronic stress take a toll on our bodies and overall well-being. It’s not unusual for us to experience persistent fatigue, feeling drained even after a full night’s sleep. Chronic stress often manifests as tension headaches and muscle aches, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and back. Bothersome gastrointestinal issues, such as stomachaches, diarrhea, or constipation, make life unpleasant. Some of us experience insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, and frequent nighttime awakenings on a regular basis. Chronic stress may lead to a weakened immune system, making us more susceptible to illnesses. Finally, chronic stress often affects our cardiovascular systems, potentially leading to high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart problems. It’s crucial to recognize and address these physical symptoms to prevent further health complications and improve overall quality of life.
Behavioral and Lifestyle Changes
Chronic stress may bring about several behavioral and lifestyle changes. Some people find themselves altering their eating habits, turning to comfort foods, or losing their appetite altogether. Stress can also drive individuals to increase substance use, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or even prescription medications as a way to cope. Social withdrawal is common in our age group, leading to isolation and a disconnect from once-beloved social activities. Procrastination often sets in, making it harder to manage tasks and meet deadlines. Hobbies and interests may lose their luster, and some may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive shopping or gambling. Recognizing these changes and seeking support is essential for finding healthier ways to manage chronic stress and maintain a fulfilling life.
It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone experiencing chronic stress will exhibit all of them. If you or someone you know is showing these signs, seeking professional help, such as a therapist or counselor, is advisable. Effective stress management techniques, including relaxation exercises, mindfulness, physical activity, and social support, can also help mitigate the effects of chronic stress.
Health Conditions Related to Chronic Stress
Chronic stress can cause an imbalance in the body that doesn’t naturally remedy itself, keeping our stress response system activated and raising stress hormone levels. Decades of research and many articles from the Bee Healthy Blog reveal that chronic stress is linked to other conditions, both physical and mental. These can include:
Chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and an elevated risk of heart disease. Prolonged stress can lead to the constriction of blood vessels and an increase in inflammation, both of which can be harmful to your heart.
Stress can lead to digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, gastritis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). These conditions can be triggered or exacerbated by chronic stress.
Weakened Immune System
Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infections and illnesses. This can result in more frequent colds, flu, and other infections.
Stress can affect breathing patterns and may exacerbate or contribute to conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Chronic stress often leads to muscle tension and pain, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. Conditions like tension headaches and fibromyalgia can also be worsened by stress.
Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders
Stress can disrupt the balance of hormones in the body, potentially contributing to conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and thyroid disorders.
Chronic stress can exacerbate or trigger skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema.
Mental Health Disorders
While it can be both a cause and a consequence, chronic stress is strongly associated with mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Chronic stress can lead to ongoing sleep disturbances, including insomnia, which, in turn, can exacerbate stress.
Some research suggests that chronic stress may increase the risk of autoimmune diseases by negatively impacting the immune system’s regulation.
Tips For Managing Chronic Stress
It would be great if we could eliminate the stress in our lives, but that’s not realistic. So, we need to learn to manage chronic stress. The first step is to identify the source of our stress to allow for targeted interventions. Is your stress work-related? Perhaps you need to explore other opportunities. Do you have financial concerns? Maybe a friend who is good with finances or a professional financial advisor can help you create a reasonable budget. Is your stress related to a difficult relationship? Maybe limiting how much time you spend with this person will help decrease your stress levels.
In other words, it’s important to take care of yourself. Do what you have to do to improve your life and situation. Here are some helpful tips to help manage your chronic stress.
You don’t have to go outside to do this. Walking around your house for several minutes can help stop the stress cycle which may feel all-consuming. It’s a simple stress releaser.
Yoga is an ancient practice that combines physical postures, controlled breathing, meditation, and mindfulness to promote overall well-being. It can be highly effective in helping to manage and reduce stress. It’s not necessary to join an expensive yoga studio; there are many free yoga classes available online.
Utilize Mindfulness Strategies
When stressed, it’s normal for our minds to go astray. Mindfulness strategies can help us slowly return to the present moment. These techniques can help improve focus, promote a sense of calm, and enhance overall well-being. Effective mindfulness techniques include breath awareness, progressive muscle relaxation, journaling, living in the moment, and more.
A person suffering from chronic stress is more amenable to implementing and accepting positive suggestions while in hypnosis. For example, I often feel stressed while flying. The hypnotherapist might say, “Remember to relax and breathe whenever you sit on an airplane.” On the other hand, if the source of your chronic stress comes from past traumas, returning to those memories might help, and learning techniques to help cope better. For example, if you are someone who experiences stress around dogs because you were bitten when young.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Sleep is critical to good mental and physical health. It’s when the mind and body take a break and repair itself. Establish sleep-friendly practices such as going to bed at the same time each night, ensuring your bedroom is conducive to sleep, and clearing your head to fall asleep. Stay away from electronics for an hour before going to bed. Sleeping on a comfortable mattress can also improve sleep quality.
Spend Time with Friends and Family
Spending time with your loved ones is an excellent method of relieving stress. Family and close friends can offer a non-judgmental and safe space to share your joys, concerns, and thoughts. Receiving understanding and love from them can drastically boost your overall well-being.
Focus on What You Can Change
Focusing on what you can change can help give you a sense of control. You may feel more composed and collected, even if the change seems insignificant. For example, planning what to eat for lunch can give you a primary focus at an unsure time.
When Is It Time to Seek Help?
If self-help coping techniques aren’t working, it’s time to seek help from a professional. An experienced therapist can help you get past limiting beliefs and decrease your feelings of self-doubt and negativity. They can also offer advice and support about treatment options and refer you to a more specialized healthcare provider if needed. Getting help immediately is especially important if you have suicidal thoughts.
Are You Ready to Manage Your Chronic Stress?
Stress is part of our daily lives, and generally, short-lived stress is unthreatening or non-dangerous. However, when stress lasts long and becomes chronic, it can damage our health, physically and mentally. Think about your symptoms. Do you feel like the chronic stress in your life is causing some of them? Many of us like to think of ourselves as strong and not in need of help. However, we all need help sometimes. There is no shame in that.
When stress becomes chronic, it’s time to take action. Chronic stress, persisting over an extended period, can lead to a range of health issues, including heart problems, digestive disorders, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It can also weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses. Chronic stress can strain relationships, affect job performance, and lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Consider reducing stress when you notice symptoms like persistent anxiety, irritability, fatigue, or physical tension. It’s also crucial to address stress when it interferes with daily life, work, and relationships. Implementing stress management techniques, making positive lifestyle changes, and seeking professional help, can help mitigate the effects of chronic stress and improve your overall quality of life.