“It has been verified through scientific exploration that more than 80 percent of all diseases are due to stress and strain that originate in the mind and reflect on the body.”
– American Medical Association
It’s been said that stress is the cause of all disease. Not just the stress you feel when under a tight deadline or when a political argument erupts at Thanksgiving (every year!), but a combination of physical, chemical and emotional stressors you’re likely not even aware of.
This year, the emotional stressors from COVID-19 have been weighing down on our bodies. However, the good news is that even if you’re not aware of these stressors on your mind and body, there are numerous ways to mitigate their negative effects. Let’s take a second to define stress and learn how we can get rid of it.
What is Stress?
“Everybody experiences stress,” says Sara Peckham, former long-time director of wellness at Judson and member of Judson’s board of directors. “It’s the body’s natural reaction to a stimulus or stressor that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. It’s also commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response.”
This response to life or death situations served us well in the evolutionary process, allowing us to adapt and survive in dangerous situations.
Here is your body’s physiological response to this type of stress:
- Increased heart rate and pulse
- Heightened muscle preparedness/tension
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Digestive system slowdown
- Immune system suppression
- Heightened sense of alertness/lack of sleep
- Increase in cortisol production (stress hormone)
You can see how these reactions can be beneficial in dangerous situations. Our body, in remarkable fashion, responds so that the necessary functions for immediate survival are enhanced. Pretty impressive, really. But once the dangerous situation subsided, our body was meant to return to homeostasis.
The problem we’re finding today is that many of us have this “fight or flight” mechanism turned on continually throughout our lives, and in everyday situations that don’t warrant this level of response. Refer once again to the list above, and imagine those reactions being someone’s general state of being.
Exposed to this type of stress continually over the course of our lives has a chronic effect and can lead to the sub-par performance and breakdown of various internal organs, all the way down to a cellular level.
Researchers have identified common health problems associated with chronic stress:
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Alzheimer’s Disease
As you can see, these are issues that don’t affect only older adults, but the members of every generation.
So what can we do? How do we eliminate this stress and ensure a vibrant, healthy life? Chances are the stressors in your life will never be totally eliminated. But we can learn to control our reactions so as to alleviate our “fight-or-flight” response, thus mitigating the negative effects of stress on the body.
5 Ways to Reduce Stress
A sense of mindfulness is one of our primary means of dealing with stress, according to Sara Peckham. To quiet a busy mind and become more aware of the present moment means we’re less caught up in the past and we reduce our worry for the future. We’re able to enjoy “the now” while still acknowledging and accepting our feelings and thoughts.
“Meditation is an essential means to achieving mindfulness and reducing stress,” says Peckham. “Science is learning about the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire during meditation. This is called ‘brain plasticity.’ Think of ‘attention’ as a muscle; exercise it through meditation and it will strengthen.”
In the face of stress and anxiety, many of us turn to the miracles of modern medicine and get an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication from our doctor. This will not solve the problem; instead, it will only mask its symptoms. Mindfulness, rather, will help you get to the root.
“Meditate, don’t medicate,” says Peckham.
In addition to physical benefits like increasing lung capacity, bone density and overall longevity, exercise has a distinct impact on brain health. And because this is where most of our stress originates, exercise’s impact on reducing stress levels cannot be overstated.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois clearly showed how modest but regular aerobic exercise can improve our overall cognitive health. Older adults who participated in the study took 40-minute walks three days per week over the course of one year.
In that year alone, the participants saw a two-percent increase in the size of their hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning. In contrast, without exercise, older adults can expect to see a decrease in the size of their hippocampus by about one or two percent each year.
Exercise spurs the generation of new brain cells – this is now well-documented fact. But how much exercise do we need? Not as much as you might think.
The Rush Memory and Aging Project, conducted in 2012 in Chicago with more than 1,200 elders participating, clearly demonstrated that, as Dr. Perlmutter references in his book Grain Brain: “. . . we cannot underestimate the power of low-cost, easily accessible, and side-effect-free activities that may not entail formal exercise. The mere actions of daily living can provide brain-protective benefits at any age.”
We asked Sara Peckham which type of physical activity she recommended. “The kind you will do on a regular basis!” she says with a laugh.
3.) Body Manipulation
In addition to traditional exercise like walking, aerobics or weight-lifting, there exist more subtle forms of what we’ll call “body manipulation” that can have a major impact on reducing stress levels. The short list includes therapies and programs that are all available at Judson:
The benefits of these therapies and exercises include:
- Relieving physical effects of stress
- Reducing blood pressure
- Accumulating energy by releasing endorphins (rather than depleting it)
- Enhancing mental capacity and concentration
- Improving conditions like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s
These activities, coupled with other forms of physical exercise, help people of all ages maintain independence and increase their sense of mindfulness.
Many activities like yoga and Tai Chi are generally part of a larger program or exist in a class structure. This has the added benefit of bringing people together and encouraging a sense of community, which happens to be our fourth way to help you reduce stress.
4.) A Sense of Community
“As we age, oftentimes we lose acuity, vision, hearing, and sometimes memory,” says Peckham. “We also have more to deal with physically; and as these things happen, we tend to isolate ourselves because we don’t want to be ‘found out.’”
This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, according to Peckham and backed up by numerous scientific studies. A sense of community and warm relationships are critical to our physical and mental health from infancy to old age.
In 1938 the Harvard Grant Study began to unveil the secrets of health and happiness. It began by examining the life of 268 Harvard students, and would proceed to follow them over the course of their lives. It is the longest-run study of human development ever performed, and the findings were published in the book Triumphs of Experience.
Here are some of the notable highlights:
Money and social class don’t matter: It’s been proven by multiple studies, including this one, that an income over $78K does nothing to increase happiness.
At any time you can change your life: It says “…the people who did well in old age did not necessarily do well in midlife, and vice versa” . . . “and even between 70 and 90 years of age growth continues.”
Happiness and success are most dependent on warm relationships: The author of the study placed the most importance on this factor over all others. In fact he goes on to say, “Men who had ‘warm’ childhood relationships with their mothers took home $87,000 more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.”
A sense of community enables these warm relationships to form more easily and seamlessly over the course of our entire lives, and does wonders in increasing happiness and alleviating stress.
5.) Eat Nutritionally Dense Foods and Avoid Sugar
A less commonly known stressor comes in the form of foods lacking nutritional density.
In today’s society it’s all too easy to consume foods that are nearly devoid of nutrition. Fast food restaurants are at every major intersection – and if not you’ll often find instead a drug store stocked to the ceiling with potato chips, sugary snacks and refined foodstuffs.
In an age where it’s well-documented that we as Americans are, year by year, gaining more weight, experiencing more chronic pain, and dying more and more from conditions associated with severe cognitive impairments, we cannot ignore the fact that our poor diets play a role.
And nutrition’s impact on the brain cannot be overstated. It’s critical to our mental health and stress levels that the food we eat be chock-full of vitamins and minerals our bodies need to optimally function. This generally means a diet low in carbohydrates and high in healthy, saturated fats. Recommended diets include an abundance of vegetables, fish, meat, poultry, nuts, eggs and salads.
And if you do nothing else nutritionally to reduce your stress, perhaps the #1 recommendation we can make is this: AVOID SUGAR.
Sugar’s effect on the body is only negative; however, it’s easy energy, which is why so many of us crave it. But the overconsumption of sugar has a direct correlation to obesity, diabetes, disease and even death. If we can cut out sugar completely, we’d find that much of our stress and anxiety simply goes away, in addition to a compendium of other health benefits like regulated blood pressure levels, increased mineral content in your body, and increased cognitive function.
Are You Eating Healthy? Read Our 10 Healthy Eating Tips for People Over 65 »
To summarize, some important ways to reduce stress on your body are:
- Increase mindfulness
- Exercise regularly
- Engage in subtler forms of body manipulation like Tai Chi and massage
- Become active within your community and cultivate warm relationships
- Eat nutritionally dense foods and avoid sugar
One of these methods may help reduce stress in the short term, but it’s important to our lasting health that we engage in all of them to some degree. In today’s world, one of the many invisible effects of COVID-19 is the burden of stress we feel on a daily basis. The effect of this stress on the body is cumulative, but so are the efforts to reduce stress. The longer we engage in these stress-relieving activities, the more positive their overall impact. Which also means that there is no better time to start than today.