Starting off on a stress-busting journey

Health services and community support is available for those in need.

Krystal Simpson Healthy Living
Krystal Simpson
Healthy Living

Have you ever felt your heart pounding on a rollercoaster or a knot in your stomach before you step on a plane? If the answer is yes, then you’re well-acquainted with how the stress hormone feels in your body. Stress is a part of everyday life for so many people, and older adults are no exception. If something is keeping you awake at night, that something may be 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 eighties, Don’t worry, be happy? Probably…because the song was hard to forget! It’s likely no one remembers the artist’s name, but Bobby McFerrin was definitely onto something. Worrying can magnify existing problems and elevate your stress level: “In your life expect some trouble, when you worry you make it double.” So when the challenges of getting older 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.

You’re out for a 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 is increasing your energy level and preparing you to run as fast as you can away from the threat.

Commonly referred to as the “flight or fight” response, this body mechanism developed to help us react quickly as a means of survival. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is also released in your body, suppressing non-essential functions like your immune and digestive systems.

Now it would be great if that stress response was only activated during a real threat. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Your body may react to psychological stress as well. If you 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. For example, cortisol is known to 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 what the source of your stress is. Take some time to observe your mood throughout the day. What makes you feel anxious, fearful or angry? This is 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 physical limitations of aging can make someone feel they’re no longer in control of their life. Physical pain can be a constant source of anxiety – perhaps your arthritis is limiting your mobility and affecting your quality of life. Some older adults experience an intense fear of falling, which limits the activities of daily living.

The second step is asking for help. Talking with a friend, family member or health care provider can often release pent-up stress. Studies have also shown that feeling socially connected can minimize its negative effects. 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 of a 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 also relax your mind.

The third step is getting started on your anti-stress plan. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s healthy aging resource team (HART) is an excellent place to start if you’re 55-plus and interested in learning about healthy living. The HART teams are comprised of community-based professionals who provide health services and community supports.

Located throughout Winnipeg, the teams are made up of nurses, occupational therapists and dietitians who are available for client assessments and consultations.

Amy Krahn is an occupational therapist with the Downtown/Point Douglas HART team. She works with older adults to help them live independently with a sense of fulfillment.

Occupational therapy can help a person solve problems that can come with changes in their lives – for example, as Amy explains, “a change in health or physical ability, or change in mental and emotional health” – and interfere with their ability to do things that are important to them. Amy might help a client manage a chronic illness or prevent a future fall by doing an in-home risk assessment, being careful to keep the client engaged in the process.

No referrals are necessary and the HART teams can help anyone residing in their community area. For more information, visit their website at http://www.wrha.mb.ca/community/seniors/services-hart.php

So what’s the lesson from 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.

Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a not-for-profit service of the Victoria Hospital Foundation.

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