Throughout this semester, I have written about the causes and consequences of stress. For example, constantly being connected to technology or worrying about terrorism can cause stress. This stress can manifest itself psychologically, but also physically in the form of cardiovascular disease or other serious illnesses. We might stuff our faces with junk food to combat the stress, and it might work for a minute. But then we might have to deal with the consequences of being overweight or at higher risk for diabetes, all of which can be connected back to stress again. Luckily, it’s not all bad news. There are active steps we can take to reduce the stress we experience on a daily basis and aim to slow down the deterioration of our bodies as we age.
One of my go-to remedies for a long day at the office is exercise. I think I’m extremely lucky not only because I enjoy exercise, but also because it has been a regular part of my life since I was young, so it is a core part of my life. Of course, there are days I feel too tired to go, but I always feel better afterwards. Previous research appears to support my positive views of exercise. Sapolsky (2004) notes that exercise not only improves mood, but also decreases risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. In addition, Von Haaren, Haertel, Stumpp, Hey, and Ebner-Priemer (2015) found that a preventative aerobic exercise intervention led students to experience lower levels of emotional stress reactivity during a final exam. Less stress, less chance of disease, and a better mood—what’s not to like about exercise? (answer: burpees).
For those who are less athletically inclined, don’t worry—there are other ways to handle your worries. In fact, it is possible to train yourself to handle stress better. Evers et al. (2006) found that individuals trained in stress management with just three personalized training plans mailed to them were more likely to engage in stress management techniques long term and also experienced significantly less stress than those who were not given the intervention. Furthermore, engaging in mindfulness—purposeful, present-focused thinking—has shown positive outcomes both in terms of physical and psychological wellbeing (Alsubaie et al., 2017). Even though it is unclear whether the mechanisms behind Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction are the same for people with different disorders (Alsubaie et al., 2017), the important message is that we can employ various cognitive strategies to help us cope with stress more effectively.
Indeed, Sapolsky (2004) emphasizes the importance of flexibility to allow us to change coping styles when needed. For myself, this makes me think of how I adapt when certain coping strategies are no longer available. For example, last year I tore my ACL and was unable to engage in my usual sporting activities for over six months. It sucked. But during that time I sought out other activities that allowed me to cope with my stress.
As people get older, they may gradually lose access to the coping strategies they used to use. They may be physically unable to play a sport or perhaps lost a close loved one they used to vent to. Unfortunately, along with this loss of (perceived) functioning, the elderly may lose their agency and sense of purpose. Sapolsky (2004) discusses how control, predictability, social support, a sense of responsibility, and feeling needed are all important components to staying healthy as an older adult. He describes how nursing homes can often be a detriment to the elderly as they can lead to infantilizing, loss of control, and loss of social support. This certainly calls into question our society’s trend toward outsourcing the care of our parents and grandparents to paid professionals, but that is a discussion for another day. The important thing is that we all need to find ways to manage the stress of our everyday lives, and hopefully we have supportive people around us to help us get there.
Alsubaie, M., Abbott, R., Dunn, B., Dickens, C., Keil, T., Henley, W., & Kuyken, W. (2017). Mechanisms of action in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in people with physical and/or psychological conditions: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review.
Evers, K. E., Prochaska, J. O., Johnson, J. L., Mauriello, L. M., Padula, J. A., & Prochaska, J. M. (2006). A randomized clinical trial of a population-and transtheoretical model-based stress-management intervention. Health Psychology, 25(4), 521.
Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: WH Freeman.
Von Haaren, B., Haertel, S., Stumpp, J., Hey, S., & Ebner-Priemer, U. (2015). Reduced emotional stress reactivity to a real-life academic examination stressor in students participating in a 20-week aerobic exercise training: A randomised controlled trial using Ambulatory Assessment. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 20, 67-75.