As you age, stressful situations may take more of a toll on your body and mind than they did when you were younger. If coping with stress is more challenging now, the shift could be due to physical changes in your body and the long-lasting effects of chronic stress.
1. Effects of Chronic Stress
After an acute (short-term) stress event — say, getting stuck in traffic — the body usually returns to its normal state, says Monisha Bhanote, MD, a quintuple board-certified physician and Yoga Medicine instructor. But when stress is chronic — that is, lasting over a long period — the body remains in a constant state of alarm. "As we age, this continuous stress impacts our body's ability to return to its previous normal state," Dr. Bhanote says.
Take the circulatory system, for example: "The circulating inflammation affects our blood vessels, which can remain dilated, increasing our blood pressure," she says.
Chronic stress can also lead to excess cortisol, commonly known as the body's "stress hormone," which can trigger a cascade of negative health effects, Dr. Bhanote says.
"As we age, we feel these negative health effects even more, including a weakened immune system, sleep disturbances, digestive issues, weight gain and decreased memory," she adds.
2. Chronic Illness or Pain
If you have a chronic disease, illness or another medical condition — all of which are more common in older adults — the mental stress caused by those conditions can make it harder to cope with stress in general.
"Having any disease puts a strain on your mental and emotional state," Dr. Bhanote says. "From numerous doctor appointments to simply not feeling well, chronic disease makes life more challenging."
3. Not Getting Enough Sleep
"Sleep is the way in which our bodies heal," says Sara Mikulsky, PT, DPT, a physical therapist, certified personal trainer and owner of Sara Mikulsky Wellness Physical Therapy in New York. "Sleep allows our muscles to rest and relax, our brains to process information and our joints to decompress and stretch out. When we're stressed, it may be more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep."
As you age, you may not sleep as well, according to the National Institute on Aging. When you don't get enough sleep, your physical and emotional abilities to cope with stress are reduced.
Chronic stress-induced insomnia can also cause anxiety, depression and irritability, all factors that make it harder to deal with stress, according to a December 2018 study in the Journal of Sleep Research.
4. Poor Nutrition
As you age, your appetite may decline, decreasing the amount of food and nutrients you get. Some medications can cause decreased appetite, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), and older adults are more likely to take meds regularly. Likewise, dental problems can make it difficult to eat certain nutritious foods, and people older than 60 often have a decreased senses of taste and smell, which can make food seem less appetizing, per the NLM.
Nutritional deficiencies can compromise your immune system and lower your energy level, making it harder to cope with stress, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A poor diet can also lead to heart disease, diabetes and obesity, conditions that can add additional stress to your life, according to the same source.
5. Lack of Physical Activity
If you don't remain physically active as you age, that lack of movement and exercise can affect your ability to cope with stress.
"As we age, all of us experience some decline in our body's joints, muscles, strength and balance. This is normal aging," says Mikulsky. "But if we pay attention to our bodies, continue to exercise and stay flexible and active, we can help slow down this process [and] help our bodies reduce stress, both physically and mentally."
6. Life Challenges
Aging often comes with new or unexpected life challenges that make life more stressful.
Experiencing personal losses such as the deaths of parents and friends can cause depression, fatigue and a less hopeful outlook on life, at least temporarily, according to the NLM.
Worry, depression or physical stress caused by taking care of aging parents are also stressors that can make it more difficult to cope.
5 Tips to Help You Better Cope With Stress as You Age
1. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Try to get at least seven hours of sleep nightly, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Struggle with sleep? Lean on natural remedies for insomnia like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and making sure your bedroom is dark, quite and cool.
"Learning to breathe deeply or meditate with breath can be a helpful way to ease the mind and body" says Mikulsky. "Listening to gentle, meditative music or nature sounds can also help us center and relax. Implementing a gentle stretching program before bed can also help us unwind, relax and breathe better."
2. Stay Flexible and Active
Adults of any age should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activities and two days a week of strength-training activities that engage the major muscle groups, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Older adults with chronic health conditions should try to be as active as possible, depending on their abilities and health condition, according to the same guidelines.
The Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans recommends several aerobic activities, including:
- Walking, hiking, biking, jogging or running
- Swimming or water aerobics
- Dancing and aerobic exercise classes
- Some forms of yoga
- Yard work such as pushing a mower or raking
According to the same guidelines (depending on your health and abilities), recommended muscle-strengthening activities include:
- Building muscle strength using exercise bands, weight machines or free weights
- Body-weight exercises such as planks, squats, lunges, push-ups and pull-ups
- Tai chi or yoga
- Carrying groceries
If you're new to exercise, talk to your doctor to better understand what level of activity is safe for you based on your health status.
Being involved in your community can help you cope better with stress as you age.
"Make sure you have some community components for your relationships, such as a book club or walking club," Dr. Bhanote says. Talking things over with friends can also help you cope better with stress, and other people may even offer a few tips of their own.
Volunteering for a cause you're passionate about can also open doors to new friendships and provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment from helping others.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the ancient practice of living in the moment by taking in all that's around you without judgment or preconceived notions, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Quieting your mind and appreciating your present surroundings and emotions with mindfulness can help manage stress and alleviate anxiety and depression.
You can sit quietly or meditate to practice mindfulness, but you can also be totally present in the moment while walking, eating and being with other people, according to the NIH.
Need help to start becoming more mindful? Consider downloading a mindfulness or meditation app for guidance and focus.
5. Eat a Nutritious Diet
Make sure your body gets essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and vitamins and minerals. Eating foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids — salmon, mackerel, tuna, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts, for example — may also help regulate cortisol levels to help your body cope better with stress as you age, according to the NIH.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Stress."
- Yale Medicine: "Chronic Stress."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Does Stress Management Become More Difficult as You Age?"
- Journal of Sleep Research: "The Impact of Stress on Sleep: Pathogenic Sleep Reactivity as a vulnerability to Insomnia and Circadian Disorders."
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Taste and Smell Disorders."
- Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health: "Stress and Health."
- NIH: "Mindfulness Matters."
- NIH: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids."
- National Institute on Aging: "A Good Night's Sleep"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Get Enough Sleep"