7 ways to relieve stress at any age

Wellbeing Community
30 July 2021
Woman in nature

Stress is a normal part of life, and it affects us all no matter where we are at in life. We tend to imagine retirement as a breezy time, free of commitments and worries. And while it’s true that as you get older you typically encounter less work and children-related stress, you’re often faced with other stressors: the loss of loved ones, worrying health concerns or even just the stress of ageing itself.

Here are 7 coping tools and strategies to help reduce stress at any age:

1. Meditate

Yes, you’ve heard it before, but it’s so beneficial to your mental health, that it’s worth mentioning again. One of the best things about meditation is that it not only helps reduce stress, but it can also help prevent stress from affecting you in the first place. Why? Research has shown that regular meditation actually changes the structure of your brain so you can become less reactive to stressful situations. One study showed that over time, regular meditation can decrease the size of your amygdala, the part of the brain that signals our brain to turn on the stress response in the body.  Research has also shown that people who meditate regularly may be able to recover more easily from stress when it happens.

Meditation is perhaps ideally suited to seniors as mobility is not a pre-requisite and you can meditate anywhere at any time. If you’re new to meditation, try starting small with five minutes a day then build it up slowly for best results. Listening to guided meditations is a good place to begin if you have never meditated before – you can find many short recordings online with a quick Google or YouTube search, and there are various free meditation apps such as Insight Timer that can work wonders. Alternatively, try looking up health and wellness providers or meditation centres in your area who offer classes for beginners.

2. Get your nature fix

Walking outside in green spaces, or spending time in the garden are well-known ways to improve your mood. A large study in England on older adults found that high exposure to natural environments (green space and gardens) was associated with decreased rates of anxiety and depression. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount of time though to reap the rewards – a recent study found that as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting can help you feel happier and lessen the effects of both physical and mental stress.

And if you live in a more urban area or can’t easily access green spaces, the good news is that even having indoors plants can work wonders. Research conducted by Washington State University proved that being around plants reduces stress and drops blood pressure. In one Japanese study about 27% of participants experienced a significant decrease in their pulse rate by the end of a plant-tending period, and most participants’ anxiety scores decreased too.

3. Smile

It might feel a bit hard to crack a smile when you’re under pressure, but a 2012 study at the University of Kansas showed that smiling—even when fake—can help your body deal with stress. Researchers compared the effects of smiling genuinely (both mouth and eyes engaged), smiling unknowingly (participants had chopsticks arranged in their mouths to create a fake smile) and neutral expressions. Interestingly, both smiling groups had lower heart rate than the neutral group after performing a stressful task, though the group with genuine smiles had the lowest heart rate overall. These findings show that smiling can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy. The researchers suggest that moving your facial muscles sends a message to your brain that can influence your physical state and mood. So, if you’re stressed, try smiling – it seems there’s some actual truth behind the expression ‘grin and bear it’!

4. Laugh

We all know how good it feels to laugh, and when you think about it, it’s hard to be stressed when you’re laughing! It seems laughter really is the best medicine though with many studies showing it releases feel-good endorphins and decreases stress. “When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol,” said Dr Edward Creagan, professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. 

And not only is it free and available at any age, you only need small regular doses to feel the stress-busting benefits. One study on the stress-buffering effect of laughter found that frequency of laughter decreases stress symptoms, but the intensity of the laughter doesn’t have an impact. So you don’t need to be crying tears of laughter or unable to breathe, a small regular chuckle will do just fine!

5. Practice yoga

A little yoga in the morning, at night, or even on a lunch break, can help you manage stress. One study showed that yoga practitioners had lower levels of cortisol, and in a large National Institutes of Health survey in the US, more than 85 percent of people who engaged in yoga said they experienced reduced stress as a result.

Yoga is an effective stress-buster because it combines movement with breathing exercises, which are both well-documented way of calming the mind and body. Yoga encourages one to relax by slowing the breath and focusing on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response.

The other great thing about yoga is that it’s low impact movement and it works to improve balance, which is ideal as you get older. It can also be easily modified to suit individual needs, so it’s a good choice for people of all ability levels and ages. Many studios and yoga teachers also teach more gentle yoga that’s specifically designed for seniors.

6. Listen to music

We don’t always think to reach for music when feeling overwhelmed, but it can act as a powerful stress management tool in our lives. Many studies have shown that listening to music has the potential to reduce tension and facilitate the relaxation response, so it’s worth putting on your favourite song or playlist if you’re feeling tense. In fact, research has revealed a whole host of potential mental health benefits such as relieving depression in older people and making patients less anxious and stressed before surgery.

And as far as genres are concerned, classical music has a particularly soothing effect. One study showed that listening to classical music (the song was ‘Miserere’ by Allegri if you’re curious to try it out) reduced cortisol levels significantly faster than just resting without music. It also found music to be particularly impactful on the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating heart rate, blood pressure and digestion.

7. Maintain strong social connections

Humans are social creatures and loneliness can be incredibly stressful. We all know it’s important to stay socially connected with family, friends and community for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes it’s also helpful to seek support during stressful times and share what you’re going through with a loved one. There are many ways to build your social network and stay connected with others, whether it’s through volunteering for a cause you believe in or joining a group with similar interests, such as a book club. Living at a retirement village is also a great way to find community and connection as there are many regular activities and social events planned.