Stress relief tips for older adults

Know the symptoms, get the treatment right for you

stress in adultsStress in adults, especially older adults, has many causes. You may experience it as a result of managing chronic illness, losing a spouse, being a caregiver, or adjusting to changes due to finances, retirement, or separation from friends and family. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do for stress relief.

Tailor the treatment

The type of stress relief that works best depends on what someone is experiencing. For example, if insomnia is a considerable source of stress in adults, a special type of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to treat insomnia, called CBT-i, may help. It aims to correct ingrained patterns of self-defeating behavior and negative thoughts that can rob you of sufficient amounts of sleep. In fact, the American College of Physicians now recommends CBT-i over medications as the first-line treatment for insomnia.

If disability is a source of stress, changes in your home may help you live more independently. Turn to your doctor, a geriatrician, an occupational therapist, or a staff member at your local council on aging for guidance.

Fixes for all

General stress in adults may be reduced with some of the following ideas, as reported in the Harvard Special Health Report Stress Management:

  • Engage in regular physical activity. If you are infirm, ask your doctor whether you might benefit from certain types of exercise, such as tai chi, which enhances balance. Many other kinds of physical activity improve your health, lift your mood, and reduce stress, too.
  • Consider whether you might benefit from a course in assertiveness training that would help you state your wishes and handle conflicts.
  • Join a support group if you are dealing with bereavement.
  • Think about getting a pet—both the pluses and minuses. Several studies support the stress-lowering effects of having a dog, cat, or other animal companion. But don't forget to take into consideration the physical and financial challenges of pet ownership.
  • Attend a mind-body program. These can help at any age. Some are specifically designed for seniors. Others may focus on chronic pain or specific ailments, such as heart disease.

Don't ignore symptoms

The symptoms of stress in adults may show up in many forms, such as

But don't wait to seek stress relief. Chronic stress in adults increases the risk of heart disease, heartburn, and many other health problems. "Stress increases blood sugar and can make diabetes worse. It can create high blood pressure and cause insomnia. It can also make people become anxious, worried, depressed, or frustrated," says Dr. Ann Webster, a health psychologist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

With so much as stake, it's best to seek stress relief as soon as you suspect that stress may be a problem.

By Heidi Godman
Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter