SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Managing and reducing stress for better health

Maureen Wendt

Most readers will be surprised by these statistics: 75 to 90% of adult visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems and 89% of adults describe experiencing "high levels of stress." One million employees are absent on an average workday because of stress-related problems.

Change is a fact of life for everyone and older people are no exception. Change may lead to stress for some, including change in income; death of a spouse, family member or friend; injury or illness; change in the health of a friend or family member; change in living conditions; change of personal habits; change of residence or loss of independence. Even "happy change" such as retirement can cause stress.

In addition to change, stress in older people can be caused by living alone, financial worries, having too much or too little leisure time, being unable to perform daily living tasks, lack of transportation, illness or caring for a spouse with a disability.

Too much stress over too long a time can leave you burned out or even ill. We need to listen to our bodies when they are trying to tell us to "stop and take a breath."

Stress cannot be avoided completely, but it is a good idea to limit sources of stress in your life whenever possible. Stress affects your emotions, your body, and can contribute to illness.

Positive thinking is one of the most powerful and effective ways to manage stress — and it works for people of all ages. When you find yourself worrying over a problem, stop and focus on ways to solve the problem instead. When preparing for a tense situation, don't tell yourself you will fail. Believe in yourself and tell yourself that you can handle the situation and chances are you will. To help relieve anxiety, visualize the outcome that you want to happen — not the outcome you fear will happen.

Develop some interests, team up with a friend or become a volunteer — have some fun because enjoyment is great medicine for stress. And outside interests can keep you feeling young, too. Set some time aside for a hobby, sport or home project. Spending time each day doing something you enjoy is a great way to relieve stress. And, why not find someone who shares your interests and plan activities together. You'll find satisfaction in helping others by donating the use of your skills and interests.

Of course, when you work on being healthy and fit you help reduce stress. In addition to helping the body manage stress, physical activity can help slow the effects of aging. Some alternatives are available for a more relaxed state of mind and/or greater sense of feeling healthy physically. Consult your health care provider for diet information or before you start an exercise program.

Learning to relax with deep breathing, meditation, visualization, taking a walk, reading a good book, or listening to music are other good ideas to help reduce your stress. Find a method that works for you.

Seeking help to control stress isn't a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. If you need help, help is available through various professionals such as your health care-provider, professional counselors, self-help groups, mental health centers, your spiritual leader, stress management workshops, or senior services groups.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com.

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