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Successful Aging: Exploring ways to manage and reduce stress

Q. I am in my 70s and thought that there would be a little less stress at my age. I find myself worrying about the coronavirus and my health as well as climate change and our political environment. My concern is the impact of such stress on my well-being. Any suggestions on how to manage this? D.M.

Your concern about stress and your well-being is valid. We know that chronic stress is bad for our health. It speeds up the aging process and causes premature aging of the immune system and ultimately can affect longevity.

Telomeres play a major role. They are the protective cases at the end of DNA strands – a long chain of molecules in chromosomes. Over time, chromosomes become shorter and fray. Telomeres stop the fraying and act like the tip of a shoelace that prevents the shoelace from unraveling. Each time a cell divides the telomere gets shorter meaning that protection of the DNA shortens. When the telomeres get too short, the cell can no longer divide and it dies or becomes vulnerable to inflammation. This can accelerate the aging process and health risks.

Chronic stress also causes the release of the hormone cortisol. At elevated levels, cortisol causes chronic inflammation associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Don’t be discouraged. There are several practices that can minimize or moderate stress.

Breathing exercises: The goal is to use abdominal breathing that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a sense of calm, similar to meditation.

Mindfulness meditation: This is the practice of being still, being aware of your breath and staying present, pushing away any thoughts coming your way.

Exercise: This includes anything that moves your body including walking, cycling, lifting weights, yoga, tai chi, dancing, paddleboarding.

Stress management involves other practices, as suggested by

A first step is to assume some responsibility in the role we might be playing in creating or maintaining the stressful situation. Without that, the website indicates little will likely change. One can begin by determining the source of the stress. That could be the retirement experience, health, finances, one’s boss or a family issue. Also, think about if you are normalizing stress and assuming it just part of today’s work and home life.

Here are four steps suggests as a stress management tool.

  1. Avoid unnecessary stress. This involves learning how to say “no” and avoiding people that cause you to feel stressed. Be realistic regarding your task list and consider shortening it. If the environment is stressful such as listening to the news, turn the switch and don’t listen.

  2. Modify the situation. If a person is causing you stress because of some differences, be willing to compromise to find a middle ground. Find a balance among work, family and alone time. Remember play is an important part of living.

  3. Reframe the issue. If you are stuck in traffic, think of it as a time to listen to your favorite radio station. Also, take a long-range view or perspective asking yourself if this stressful issue will affect you in months or a year. Know that things do pass. Being a perfectionist can cause stress so don’t be so hard on yourself. And then there is the expression of gratitude. Acknowledge what is working well and for what you are grateful. It helps keep perspective.

  4. Accept the things you cannot change. This is called radical acceptance. Don’t try to control that which is uncontrollable such as other people’s behavior. The Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer is applicable: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The great stress reducers of physical activity and movement do not necessarily require a class, special clothes or shoes. They can be part of our everyday lives such as taking your dog for a walk, biking or walking to do your errands or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Even ping pong counts.

Thank you, D.M. for your important questions. Next week we’ll talk about other ways to reduce stress. They literally might literally be lifesavers. Stay well and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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