The Surprising Science of Stress
It isn’t just minor discomfort. It negatively affects the body, and can actually shrink your prefrontal cortex.
They say with age comes wisdom. But when it comes to recognizing and handling stress, we Boomers can be as clueless as teenagers without spellcheck.
Some of us are lucky enough to be retired. Our days are filled with leisurely weekday grocery runs, discounted afternoon matinees and pleasant mornings spent sipping coffee while doodling in our OK Boomer Coloring Book.
But even in retirement, the long arm of stress can intrude. It’s always unwelcome.
And it’s as uncomfortable as making left turns in afternoon traffic.
Everyone has experienced fight-or-flight syndrome.
That’s the stomach-clenching fear that’s triggered by stressors such as a dreaded conversation, an argument with a friend or a looming deadline.
These kinds of stressors are usually manageable. But pile up a bunch every day, and the result is a steady drip of anxiety-producing hormones — something psychologists call allostatic overload. Over time, the more allostatic overload, the more physicially and emotionally exhausted we become.
That’s when we find ourselves kicking the dog, snarfing the whole carton of Ben & Jerry’s, or accidentally dropping the F-bomb in afternoon Bible study.
In addition to making us cranky, exhausted, and emotionally awkward, stress can make us physically sick.
There’s a spate of scientific research showing that stress negatively affects the body, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems.
Researchers at Yale University found that when stress becomes constant, the prefrontal cortex begins to shrink — which may impair long-term emotional health and the ability to make good decisions.
Stress has even been proven to be contagious. One study found that simply watching someone who’s stressed out increases the watcher’s stress. Another showed that the moods of nurses were affected by their teammates, even when their shifts overlapped only slightly.
No wonder that in so many work environments, stress seems to hover above the cubicles, like a thick cloud of secondhand smoke.
Whatever your age, it’s good to know stress can be controlled.
If you’re a Boomer or better, take note of these tips:
- Stay close to friends and family. A study from the American Psychological Association finds that when you have strong social support, you’re protected from stress-induced illness. This benefit can be especially striking for mature adults.
- If you’re a family caregiver, take care of yourself. Know how to protect against burnout while helping your loved one age in place.
- Maintain a positive outlook. Optimism may be associated with more favorable emotional well-being in later life, according to a recent study in the Journals of Gerontology. It found that optimistic men reported fewer negative moods as well as more positive moods.
- Go outdoors. For people of all ages, Intermountain Healthcare recommends nature for stress control. You’ll not only get your Vitamin D and strengthen your immune system, but you’ll also improve your mood.
- Move your body. Exercise can help block the effects of aging on cortisol levels. A recently published study found that physically fit women in their mid-60s had a similar response to stress as a group of unfit women in their 20s.
One of the great gifts of aging is perspective.
When things in my own life aren’t all unicorns and rainbows, I remember what my grandmother said: “This too shall pass.”
It’s great advice. I ponder it daily…often while sipping my coffee and doodling in my OK Boomer Coloring Book.
Thanks for reading!
If you liked this article, here’s another that you’ll love: