How to Take Charge of the Stress in Your Life

Stress is the way humans and other organisms respond to environmental demands or pressures. A certain degree of stress is a normal part of how we deal with the inevitable changes in our physical or social environment. Stress-related disease, however, results from excessive and prolonged demands on our coping resources. It is now believed that 80-90 percent of all disease is stress-related. When stress is “chronic”—when it persists for a long time and doesn’t let up—that’s when it can do the most damage to our mental and physical well-being.

With age, our bodies react more intensely to stress, and it takes longer than it used to return to normal. If you have a number of health concerns, are the caregiver for an ailing family member, or are reminded daily of how difficult it is to live on a fixed income, your stress button is being pushed day after day and week after week. This means you are constantly triggering the flow of stress chemicals that are playing havoc with your body.

According to Susan Charles, professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine, “When the hypothalamus in the brain senses stress, it signals the pituitary and adrenal glands to pump cortisol—the stress hormone—into the bloodstream to help you deal with threatening situations. Cortisol affects older adults significantly more than younger adults, and, when the stress is chronic, your risk of developing dementia increases, as does the likelihood] of a stroke or a heart attack.

OK, all of that is the bad news. Now for the good news. While age may erode our natural defenses against stress, it also endows us with powerful new weapons for fighting back. Older adults who are healthy and socially connected are better at handling stressful situations than younger people. It seems that the older we are, the more adept we become at navigating away from potentially stressful situations, says Charles. One study has shown that older adults are 50 percent more likely to use proactive coping techniques to prevent stressful situations from developing in the first place and are better able to cope with life’s demands when they arise.

Furthermore, adds Charles, “Older people tend to disengage from minor problems, understanding that it’s really not worth it to get upset about the small stuff. They are also much more likely to focus their energy on important relationships with close friends and family and less on peripheral acquaintances.”

In other words, a lifetime of accumulated wisdom helps us make better decisions and choices in order to avoid succumbing to stressful circumstances. But we can be more proactive than merely hoping for our maturity to guide us.

Here is the number one thing you can do to prevent stress before it takes hold and to cope with it when it occurs. This will not be a news flash. Move! Exercise! Here are only twentyfive of the  things physical activity can do for you:

  1. Boost self-esteem
  2. Bring down your cortisol levels
  3. Build resilience
  4. Counteract the stress of social isolation
  5. Diminish inflammation
  6. Enhance your mood and overall emotional well-being
  7. Help you fight depression and anxiety
  8. Improve blood pressure regulation
  9. Improve bone health
  10. Improve brain function
  11. Improve cholesterol levels
  12. Improve your balance and lower the risk of falls
  13. Improve your sleep
  14. Increase your chances of living longer
  15. Increase your endurance, balance, flexibility, and strength
  16. Increase your energy level
  17. Lower the risk of dementia
  18. Lower your blood pressure
  19. Maintain a healthy weight
  20. Manage and prevent such diseases as arthritis, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and eight types of cancer
  21. Offset the health risks that stress causes
  22. Put you, and not the stressor, in control
  23. Reduce the risk of heart attacks, heart disease, and stroke
  24. Sharpen your memory and thinking
  25. Strengthen your muscles

Stressful situations are inevitable, but how you handle them is up to you. The consequences of letting stress wreak havoc on your mind and body are profound. But once you realize that you can choose your response to whatever life throws at you, you can truly take charge of the stress in your life.