What is stress?

Stress is a natural human reaction that happens to everyone. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses.

Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones. These hormones make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense, and increase your pulse.

Stress responses help your body adjust to new situations. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated and ready to avoid danger. For example, if you have an important test coming up, a stress response might help your body work harder and stay awake longer. But stress becomes a problem when stressors continue without relief or periods of relaxation.

People experience stress at every age. However, coping with stress becomes more difficult as we get older. Additionally, as we age, some of the things that can often trigger stress also change.

Stress is a normal feeling. There are two main types of stress:

  • Acute stress.This is short-term stress that goes away quickly. You feel it when you slam on the brakes, have a fight with your partner, or ski down a steep slope. It helps you manage dangerous situations. It also occurs when you do something new or exciting. All people have acute stress at one time or another.
  • Chronic stress.This is stress that lasts for a longer period. You may have chronic stress if you have money problems, an unhappy marriage, or trouble at work. Any type of stress that goes on for weeks or months is chronic stress. You can become so used to chronic stress that you don’t realize it is a problem. If you don’t find ways to manage stress, it may lead to health problems.

Symptoms of stress
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms develop.

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
  • Headaches, dizziness or shaking
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle tension or jaw clenching
  • Stomach or digestive problems
  • Weakened immune system

Stress can lead to emotional and mental symptoms like:

  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Sadness

Often, people with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviors, including:

  • Drinking alcohol too much or too often
  • Gambling
  • Overeating or developing an eating disorder
  • Smoking
  • Using drugs

Causes of stress
Life events can cause stress, such as:

Loss of loved ones
As we get older, we experience the death of more and more loved ones and peers. This loss of friendship or companionship can cause loneliness, isolation, and stress.

Deterioration of physical abilities
As a person loses hearing, sight, mobility, or other physical abilities as they get older, they can become frustrated. It’s an overwhelming adjustment to go from being physically capable of doing daily activities to having to rely on others for care and assistance.

Concern about finances
In retirement, many seniors must transition from being financially secure to living on a limited, fixed income. This change may bring about financial issues and difficulty adjusting to a different lifestyle.

Lack of purpose
When a person stops working, they may feel they are no longer useful to their family or society as a whole. Fortunately, these feelings of boredom and lack of purpose can often be overcome through volunteering and participation in social events and activities.

Loss of independence
When seniors can no longer drive a car or live alone safely, they experience some loss of independence. This can trigger a stress response as they feel their independence is dwindling away from them.

How to treat stress
The type of stress relief that works best depends on what someone is experiencing. For example, if insomnia is a considerable source of stress in adults, a special type of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to treat insomnia, called CBT-i, may help. It aims to correct ingrained patterns of self-defeating behavior and negative thoughts that can rob you of sufficient amounts of sleep. In fact, the American College of Physicians now recommends CBT-i over medications as the first-line treatment for insomnia. Supportive talk therapy, even for a few sessions, can be incredibly useful.

If disability is a source of stress, changes in your home may help you live more independently. Turn to your doctor, a geriatrician, an occupational therapist, or a staff member at your local council on aging for guidance.

How to Manage Stress
General stress in adults may be reduced with some of the following, as reported in the Harvard Special Health Report Stress Management:

  • Engage in regular physical activity. If you are infirm, ask your doctor whether you might benefit from certain types of exercise, such as tai chi, which enhances balance. Many other kinds of physical activity improve your health, lift your mood, and reduce stress.
  • Seek out a therapist. Target talk therapy sessions can help process and move on from a life stressor.
  • Consider whether you might benefit from a course in assertiveness training that would help you state your wishes and handle conflicts.
  • Join a support group if you are dealing with bereavement.
  • Attend a mind-body program. These can help at any age. Some are specifically designed for seniors. Others may focus on chronic pain or specific ailments, such as heart disease.

Telehealth opens the door to better treatment
Telehealth may be the perfect solution for the older population that may be restricted by quarantine in a nursing home, health issues or transportation issues. There are many ways that people with stress may benefit from telehealth. Additionally, telemedicine may be the most viable option for care for people who are experiencing life stressors like balancing work, keeping up with appointments, and transportation issues.

Telehealth is Convenient
Telemedicine eliminates the hassles of securing transportation and traveling to the doctor’s office. This works because your appointment is made on your smartphone or laptop, so you can be anywhere in the world and still see your doctor. It also frees up more time to take care of other daily tasks and duties.

Telemedicine Increases Accessibility
Many people who experience stress must travel more than 10 miles to see their health care provider. This can be especially difficult for those who do not have a car as riding public transportation can be very time-consuming. Furthermore, those with mobility challenges do not have to worry about if the doctor’s office is accessible.

Telepsychiatry Offers More Privacy
Making your appointments online means more privacy because you can easily do them from the comfort of your home or workplace.

Insurance Should Cover the Cost
If you are on Medicaid or Medicare, there is much more flexibility in getting your appointments covered than at any time in the past.

Telehealth Is More Comfortable
Most patients experiencing stress report that they feel more comfortable seeing the doctor online because they are surrounded by their things and in their own space. This may help you dive deeper into the challenges you are facing to find workable solutions sooner.

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