Identifying and Reducing Stress in Your Life

by Shirlee Ann Stokes, RN, EdD, FAAN and Susan E. Gordon, RN, EdD
More About Shirlee and Susan...

We all experience stress in our lives. Sometimes we feel more stressed than at other times. Stress is anything that the person sees as stressful. It is like pain, if an individual states they have pain, then they have pain. If an individual perceives a situation as stressful, then it is stressful. Stress is self-defined.

Stress is associated with difficult events or situations. Events such as loss of a driver’s license, death of a loved one, and being hospitalized are indeed stressful events or stressors. In these instances stress is associated with negative situations. But remember: stress can be elicited from happy occasions as well. Going on vacation, moving to a retirement community, or visits from family can also produce stress. These times might be happily anticipated, but can be fraught with feelings of anxiety and stress. Will everything go well? Are all the plans set? Have I packed everything I need?

We all know that big events in our lives can be stressful. Death of a child or being audited by the IRS are strong and well understood stressors. These stressors mark profound changes in our lives to which we must adjust. Along with the big stressors, the little daily hassles can also take their tool. Situations such as, being a passenger in a car with an erratic driver, having your refrigerator breakdown, getting an unexpected bill, suffering from chronic discomfort or pain, completing the myriad number of forms needed for Medicare, taxes, and insurance are everyday stresses we all face. These smaller chronic, long term stressors can be just as debilitating as a single large event.

Stress is associated with illness and a decreased feeling of well being. Individuals who are stressed have a greater chance of becoming ill. Some chronic diseases are associated with increased levels of stress, such as, arthritis, gastric ulcers, and heart attack. We need to find ways to decrease the effect of the stressor and/or we need to decrease the number of stressful events.

Tips to Reduce Stress

ASSESS WHAT IS STRESSFUL - The first step in getting a handle on stress is to know what are the stressors and potential stressors in your life. Take a good look at your daily activities. What is can be identified as stressful? In a research study of healthy older adults, we found that concern for world conditions was the most common stressor. While concern for world conditions, may not rate as a stressor that are highly stressful, it does place stress on some individuals. Examine at the list of the 20 most common stressors identified by individuals over 65 in our research. Are you experiencing any of these?

  1. Concern for world conditions
  2. Slowing down
  3. Decreasing number of friends or losing old friends
  4. Time with children or grandchildren too short
  5. Feeling of remaining time being short
  6. Thinking about your own death
  7. Change in your sleeping habits ( such as ability to fall or stay asleep, change in place of sleep, etc.)
  8. Wishing parts of your life had been different.
  9. Constant or recurring pain
  10. Reaching a milestone year (becoming 65, 70, 75, 80, 85, 90)
  11. Not enough visits to or from family members
  12. Change in your sexual activity
  13. Concern for children (such as out of work, divorce, arguments, etc.)
  14. Reducing eyesight
  15. Concern for grandchildren
  16. Concern for completing required forms (such as income tax, Medicare forms, etc.)
  17. Decreasing mental abilities (such as forgetting, difficulty with decision-making, planning, etc.)
  18. Change in your diet or eating habits
  19. Death of close friend
  20. Major change in number of family get-togethers

ELIMINATE AND/OR MINIMIZE STRESSORS - After listing all the stressors, think of which ones you can eliminate or do something about. Talk to other people, friends, family, and clergy. Ask for help to look at the list and determine which stressors you can eliminate and/or minimize.

If you have frequent discomfort or pain seek assistance from the pain management team at one of your health care facilities. Pain is not a natural accompaniment to growing old and paid often has its own treatable cause. With current advances in this area, it is usually not necessary to live with this constant stressor.

If you are having difficulty with getting to sleep or staying asleep, try not to fret about this situation. Adhere to a consistent bedtime routine. Go to bed at the same hour and have a warm drink before going to bed. Try to avoid naps. Do not drink fluids, caffeine and excessive alcohol in the evening. It must likewise be understood that some people do not need as much sleep as others. If you find yourself in this situation, plan for soothing activities to help you back to sleep or that use the wakeful time in a pleasant manner.

PLAN AHEAD - Plan ahead because it often it takes longer than you would think to get a plane reservation, make a doctor’s appointment or cook a meal for friends. Ahead of the actual date, make plans for how the task will be accomplished. Make a list of what needs to be done and schedule each task. Then stick to the schedule. If you are traveling, lay out the clothes for packing well in advance so the last minute stress is decreased.

If you are giving care to a loved one you need time for yourself. Planning time away from the care giving activities requires forethought and exploration of resources Determine if there are resources in your community for home maker assistance or respite care. Make specific plans for your time away so that you come back refreshed.

DEVELOP A NETWORK OF FRIENDS - Loss constitutes much of the stress in the lives of older individuals. Much of this loss is of friends, loved ones, and even pets. Feelings of loneliness or aloneness can be a chronic stressor. Thinking ahead of how to assure a steady stream of friends and caring individuals who can provide support. Joining a religious group, participating in political action committees, joining a senior citizen’s group, or volunteering at a local hospital can be a positive experience. Some communities have self-help groups that meet to offer assistance to group members. Self-help groups focus on circumscribed areas of concern, such as, Alzheimer caregiver support, cancer care or death and bereavement. Do not rely only upon a small select set of friends. Expand you mind and your opportunity to have contact with others.

SPREAD OUT THE STRESSORS - Stressors grouped together increase the level of stress and have a cumulative effect on the health and well being of the individual. Think of ways to spread out the events or situations that are stressful to you. While it may not be possible to plan for all the eventualities in your life, some events or situations that are stressful may be postponed. If you are planning a two-week vacation, this may not be the time to also have your family to the house for dinner. If your husband or wife dies, it may be wise to wait a year to sell the house and move to another location. If your spouse is entering the hospital, accept help with shopping or housekeeping.

Each stressor is additive and the more stressors in your life the higher is the level of stress. Plan for ways to decrease the number of stressors and the impact of each stressor in your life.

Internet Resources:
- The Anger Wall on ALZwell
- ElderCare Online’s Community Center (Caregiving Mentors and Discussion Groups)

- Healthy Aging Hot Topic

Related Articles:

- Understanding and Acknowledging Negative Emotions
- Overcoming Negative Emotions

- Caring for the Caregiver: Promoting Your Own Well-Being
- Stress Management: Tips and Techniques
- Strategies for Managing Stress Skill Builder

Reading List:
- Caregiver’s Reprieve: A Guide to Emotional Survival by Avrene Brandt, Ph.D.
- Taking Time for Me: How Caregivers Can Effectively Deal With Stress by Katherine L. Karr
- Caregiving: The Spiritual Journey of Love, Loss and Renewal by Beth Witrogen McLeod
- The Complete Eldercare Planner by Joy Loverde
- Hugs for Caregivers by Pauline Sheehan
- Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents by Claire Berman

Available from ElderCare Online™                2000 Prism Innovations, Inc.