Most of us know the basics about staying healthy—eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and see your doctor for checkups. But most people don't consider another important strategy for good health: managing stress.
Stress is the body's normal response to life situations. At the most primitive level, it is the so-called fight-or-flight response to a threat. The stress response starts in your brain, causing hormones to be released that stimulate your heart and blood pressure. This process is helpful if you need to make a quick decision, such as swerving to avoid a car accident.
Over the long term, however, even low-level stress is harmful. Studies show that stress and anxiety are linked to the risk of developing many conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and memory loss. Stress may also worsen these conditions if they are already present.
Before you formulate a plan to cope with stress, you need to recognize its effects on your body and mind. Some common stress-related symptoms in older adults include headaches, back pain, generalized muscle pain, insomnia, appetite changes, indigestion, poor concentration, restlessness, irritability, malaise, fatigue, heart palpitations, and more.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, please discuss them with your doctor to first rule out medical conditions and medication side effects as the cause. Palpitations, sweating. and shortness of breath may be due to cardiac disease; and nicotine, caffeine, and cortisone may cause tremor, irritability, and insomnia.
If, after medical evaluation, you and your doctor believe that your symptoms are likely due to anxiety or that your health conditions are impacted by stress, it is important to try to identify the source and find ways to cope. While you can't always alleviate or identify the cause of anxiety, you can do much to control how you react. Eating right, exercising, and taking control of preventive health measures such as doctor's visits, screenings, and vaccinations have all been found to help you be more resistant to the negative effects of stress.
Other strategies known to help relieve stress include yoga, tai chi, and meditation. It is helpful to build social supports and talk about stress with someone you trust and to ask for help from your family and friends when you feel overwhelmed. Carve out time in your schedule for hobbies you enjoy, to reflect on all you are thankful for, and to get out and socialize.
These stress-relieving techniques require some measure of effort, but they can be effective. But watching television or spending long periods aimlessly on the computer has not been shown to alleviate stress. There is also no benefit to using alcohol or sedatives.
If you have taken steps to alleviate stress but still have symptoms, see your doctor. You can also consider seeing a counselor, who may help you identify sources of stress and develop new ways to cope with useful techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Please take action if you experience stress and anxiety on a regular basis; there is much you can do to feel better.
In good health,
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