Stress can eat away, little by little or in large chunks, at both your physical and mental health. It is most threatening when it is long-term and chronic.
Stress triggers a reaction in your body: the body releases the hormone cortisol, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises. Cortisol is better known as the “stress hormone” because stress causes its release from the adrenal cortex into the bloodstream. Too much and prolonged levels of cortisol can have a negative effect.
Over time, stress may cause or worsen depression, heart disease, lower immunity, increased abdominal fat and other conditions that are risk factors for dementia. Further, research shows that high blood pressure and/or high levels of cortisol may contribute to or speed the development of Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss. Compounding this, the body is less able to lower cortisol levels with age or illness.
In general, damage control to achieve healthy levels of cortisol includes fixing any underlying problems that are causing stress and relaxing your body and mind. Healthcare providers may suggest counseling and/or medication, and lifestyle modifications. Other lifestyle choices for successful aging like healthy diet, being active and socializing can also help manage stress.
While acute stress is good for us, waking up the immune system and stimulating us to perform better, it is chronic stress that is the demon.
Chronic stress is inflammatory, and inflammation stands at the root cause of disease, especially for the cardiovascular system and the brain. Stress shrinks the hippocampus; memory is compromised. Among multiple research studies on this point, the Framingham Heart Study found that people during midlife whose blood shows signs of inflammation are twice as likely to later develop Alzheimer’s disease as people with no signs of inflammation.
When it comes to mitigating stress or preventing disease process, think Mediterranean. What can we learn from this lifestyle to turn stress into strength?
Put a positive spin on your life story. A sunny disposition sheds stress. It’s not about feigned cheerfulness, but rather consciously reframing negatives into positives to release you from a worry loop.
Be kind. When you are kind and forgiving, you can let go of any perceived injustice. And don’t forget to be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend.
Embrace humor. Humor also works well to reduce worries to absurdities and release them.
Emote. Communicate what’s on your mind, be spontaneous and at ease. On the other hand, people who experience chronic stress are self-silencing, self-suppressors, often sacrificial givers. It’s okay to be kind and to give, but not if you are going to tip over with resentment--an example of the inflammatory process.
Be social. Smile when you greet strangers, schedule get-togethers with friends and family, and party. Happiness is contagious—the more, the merrier.
Be active. Not only will you shed stress hormones when you work out, but you will be more likely to reinterpret a problem into a solution when endorphins—our own feel-good brain chemicals—are released as a relaxation response.
Follow a Mediterranean diet. The regimen makes for a healthy diet for body and mind.
Drink coffee daily. It’s a potent anti-oxidant and mood elevator.
Get sleep. Sleep deprivation can perpetuate stress. You will wake up irritable, and anything could set you off.
Ultimately, stress management means preparing for life’s instabilities and setting aside time to revitalize. While you might not be able to deal with the big stressors in your life, just yet, you can begin to handle the little ones. Small steps, giant gains.
For caregivers, stress often comes with the territory, given the enormous emotional and practical toll of their responsibilities.
Get educated. Knowledge is empowering so learn more about your loved one’s illness, by reading books, attending workshops and consulting with healthcare professionals.
Learn caregiving techniques. Key areas are communication skills, safety concerns and managing behavioral challenges and activities of daily living.
Understand the experience of your loved one. Adjust your expectations. Be patient and kind.
Think positive. Focus on your loved one's remaining strengths.
Foster communication with healthcare providers. Be involved in your loved one's medical care. Ask questions about the progression of the disease, express concerns and discuss treatment options.
Take care of financial, legal and long-term care planning issues. Try to involve your loved one, if he or she is still capable, in decision-making related to future care and end-of-life issues.
Make time for yourself. Join caregiver support groups. Pursue interests beyond your caregiving role, such as music, hobbies, journaling and art—and don’t feel guilty about carving out your own space.
Maintain your own physical and mental health. Do physical and mental exercises, socialize, pursue other leisure activities, get enough sleep and have regular checkups. Seek medical help if signs of depression emerge.
Don’t go it alone. Support systems are critical so discuss your situation with family and friends, and set up a care team. Join a support group to connect with peers in your community.
Reach out for help. Take advantage of national and local organizations that provide counseling, information, support groups, respite care services, etc. To contact the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), click here.