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Coping with Stress: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

An Interview with Dr. Joseph Sivak, M.D.
Director of Behavioral Health
The Villages Health

Stress that is chronic and unchecked is widely recognized as a contributor to many common health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. According to the American Institute of Stress, studies reveal the negative effects of stress can also accelerate aging and damage immune response.

You may think that you’ve found a ticket out of stress by finally moving to that carefree life of retirement you’ve been dreaming about for years. But, in reality, every stage of life has stress – and retirement is no exception. We spoke with Dr. Joseph Sivak for advice on how you can prepare for potentially stressful situations, recognize the warning signs of stress-related health problems, and turn things around if it gets the best of you.

What are some of the primary causes of stress in older adults?

Stress can be sudden, or slow and insidious. Some life-changing events, like the loss of a spouse, a serious change in health, or a devastating medical diagnosis – often associated more frequently with aging – cause sudden acute stress that’s very obvious. But there’s also secondary stress related to such circumstances. Maybe you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment such as a hospital, making decisions you don’t feel prepared to make, perhaps facing financial uncertainties.

We’re always looking for ways to establish an equilibrium with our environment, and when we’re faced with a new environment, we’ve got to shift mentally. That means changes in the status quo, even positive and exciting changes, can cause stress.

You may be happy about retiring from a job you’ve had for thirty years. But now suddenly you feel like you’ve lost all the self-esteem and identity that came from your profession. You’ve found the perfect retirement home at The Villages, but your house up north just won’t sell. You’re leaving your support system – loved ones and relationships built over decades. And there are situations unique to aging that cause chronic stress – such as adult children who have problems that you either can’t – or wish you didn’t have to – fix.

What’s the big deal about stress, medically speaking?

Stress causes changes in the brain, which begins a chemical communication that causes physical changes in our body. One of the more obvious effects of stress is it causes heart rate and blood pressure to go up, putting a burden on the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

What are some of the warning signs that stress may be affecting my health?

Whether you’re laid-back or consider yourself a control freak, we all are more comfortable with predictability. It’s very possible you might not even realize you’re being affected by stress. Look for signs like insomnia – not a couple of sleepless nights – but ongoing problems with falling or staying asleep. An unexplained change in appetite, unusual weight gain or loss, or gastrointestinal issues can also be warning signs that your body is reacting negatively to stress. Nervousness, pacing, palpitations, and uncharacteristic irritability are also common indicators of stress.

Are there ways I can prepare for and protect myself from harmful effects of stress?

First, acknowledge to yourself – and others – that you’re either going through or getting ready to face a really big life change, even if it’s good. Make it a priority to take care of yourself, in whatever ways you can. Choose to eat healthy foods as much as possible. If you’ve always exercised, this is no time to stop. If you have not been exercising, get your doctor’s suggestions for physical activity. Staying connected through socializing is good, but avoid any temptation to rely on alcohol as a release from stress. Avoid falling back into old bad habits, like smoking, for example. Do what you can to prepare your body for getting a good night’s sleep. And, overall, set reasonable expectations for yourself.

I’m not sure if I’m stressed or depressed. Should I see my doctor?

Yes! If you’re having any suicidal thoughts, are paralyzed with worry, or have ongoing feelings of hopelessness, do not wait – talk to a doctor or someone else you can trust to get you professional help. If your symptoms aren’t that severe, but they affect your daily functioning, definitely seek your doctor’s advice. There are screenings and diagnostic criteria to determine whether you’re dealing with depression or stress, so you can be treated appropriately, and get back on the road to being yourself.

What should I do if I wake up one day and realize that stress has taken control of my life?

It can happen. Stress is like a snowball rolling down a hill, picking up more stress along the way. But it’s never too late to start turning things around. You have to make a conscious effort to stop it. Literally and figuratively, take a deep breath. Take stock of the here and now, rather than worrying about things you can’t change, or predicting the future. Call on your support system, and be encouraged knowing you’ve gotten through things before, and you’ll get through this.

Haven’t been exercising? Keeping in mind your doctor’s advice about any physical limitations, take a walk at a nice pace tomorrow. Gained weight from stress-eating? Make a trip to the health food store, and stock up on replacements for that junk food in your pantry. Socializing with a group that leads you to drink too much alcohol? Go to a movie tonight instead.

Start making a list of the things you can do to get some control and empowerment back. Establish new routines that are about you taking care of you. Then give yourself a pat on the back for moving forward in the right direction. Stress doesn’t have to kill you.

If you’re struggling to cope with stress, talk to your primary care physician at The Villages Health. We have a care team here to help!