Strategies for Overcoming Seasonal Stress for Seniors

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Winter can be a wonderful time of family gatherings and holiday festivities, but just beyond the glitter of excitement, the winter season can also bring seasonal stress. We all experience stress through the holidays, but as we age, coping with stress isn’t as easy as it once was. As seniors or those who have older family members, it is important to understand possible seasonally related stressors, changes in response, and how to manage them.

Changes in Stress Response as We Age

As our bodies begin to creak, it is not difficult to see that just about everything is changing. As we age we become more sedentary, which causes heart fitness and lung capacity to decline. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for the body to adequately accommodate natural stress responses. Chronic diseases can also make it difficult for the body to handle and bounce back after a stressful time and conversely, stress can cause some symptoms to increase in some chronic diseases. 

Our brains are also changing. When we are younger and stress hormones flood the brain, the ability to sleep well helps flush the hormones from our system so that we wake feeling restored. Older adults often encounter sleep disturbances which provide the brain decreased opportunity for restoration. This can help contribute to short-term memory loss as well as poor concentration and decision-making. These cognitive effects can even worsen over time. 

Winter Doesn’t Always Make us Feel Warm and Cozy

During winter, the days are shorter and the weather is often inclement. This means less exposure to the sun leading to reduced physical activity, disrupted sleep patterns, less interest in activities, social withdrawal, unhealthy eating and a general sense of feeling low. Serotonin and melatonin levels both drop significantly which causes major changes in sleep and mood — two critical components of overall health and wellness.

The winter months also typically mean more visits from loved ones to navigate, more preparations, and more expenses. It can highlight wonderful memories, while at the same time make the absence of loved ones more pronounced. 

Identifying Common Stress Triggers

Over time, our stress triggers may change or intensify and this is only compounded by stressors that are particular to the winter season. For example, noise may become more bothersome so the music and crowds encountered during shopping may be more of a stress trigger than they realize. Changes in schedules, holiday music, the pressures of travel, increased physical demands, feelings of loss, tiring easily or being misunderstood can all trigger tremendous stress.

Tips for Mitigating and Managing Stress

If you or a loved one is feeling stressed, it is important to discuss your concerns with a physician. Not only can stress impact your health, but it may also be a sign of an underlying condition, such as high blood pressure. A physician can also make other helpful recommendations such as a healthy diet, exercise, or medication. 

The key to managing stress is focusing on the opposite of a stress response, which is a relaxation response that helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. Simple techniques include slow and deep breathing — inhaling slowly counting 1-2-3-4 and exhaling while slowly counting 4-3-2-1. 

Another technique is to combat loneliness without being overwhelmed by visitors.  This can be done by scheduling visitors, opting out of some family activities, and retreating to a quiet space if things get too busy. When traveling, plan in recovery days and allow for restful breaks.

Delegating duties is another important strategy to mitigate stress. Just because you’ve always driven across the country to visit family doesn’t mean they can’t drive across the country to see you, and hosting visitors can be a shared blessing. 

If the winter means fewer visitors than you’d like, reach out to family, friends, and neighbors. Initiate interaction like hosting a local book club or other social activity. Invite a friend over to watch a movie or other fun activity. 

It is also important to nurture yourself by enjoying creative activities such as painting or crafting. Take time to rediscover old hobbies or take up a new one! Feed your curiosity by taking free online courses or by doing research.

Staying healthy is another component of managing stress. Consider an exercise class or walking with friends to increase activity. Ensure healthy eating by getting food delivered by an online grocery service or through organizations such as Meals on Wheels.  

Sustained stress, whenever it occurs, is a serious thing that can have many health repercussions. If you or someone you love is having a problem dealing with stress or exhibiting signs such as depression, loss of interest in activities or people, increased anxiety; or a change in mood, diet, or routine please contact your physician immediately.  

For more information: CDC.gov

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