Eight Great Ways to De-Stress

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland December 15, 2013 13:06
Dee Clifton teaches her students, 60 or older, to reach for relaxation

Dee Clifton teaches her students, all 60 or older, to reach for relaxation

Maybe you see yourself spending your retirement on the golf course, in the RV or cheering in the stands at your grandchildren’s Little League games.

These years can be enjoyable, but the transition to them can also be stressful. You may face chronic illness, loss of loved ones, caregiving pressures or even unexpected financial strain.

“Be prepared,” says Dr. Todd Stolp, a longtime Sonora physician who treated people from birth to death and is now Tuolumne County’s health officer. “There are bound to be various changes.”

With change comes stress, something most of us don’t picture as we imagine growing older. While people in their 40s experience stress that comes with advancing their careers and raising kids, those in their later years may find themselves combating declining health, financial concerns and growing social isolation.

“What tends to dominate are losses,” says John Berner, a clinical psychologist in Murphys. “Loss of health, loss of friends, loss of earning capacity after people have retired.”

Some stress is inevitable whatever your age, but prolonged stress translates to health problems that can include depression, memory loss and impaired immune response, particularly significant for seniors.


  • Stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night, according to the American Psychological Association.
  • An Oregon State University study suggests that men with consistently moderate or high stress levels were about 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than men who felt less stressed.
  • Stress increases susceptibility to infections, making people more vulnerable to colds and flu. It also triggers production of substances called cytokines, which are associated with heart disease and asthma.

Here are eight great ways to reduce stress. Some are old standbys, like exercise and meditation. Others may surprise you, like remaining sexually active despite – or perhaps because of – the stress in your life.

Exercise more

Did you know only 25 percent of women and 33 percent of men 65 and older exercise or play sports regularly, despite the many proven benefits?

That’s according to the University of California at Davis. The university’s publication, Successful Aging, says exercise has been proven to help maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and breaking bones.

More health benefits of exercise, according to UCD, include lower blood pressure, healthier bones and joints, less arthritic pain and decreased cancer risk.

“It helps head off so many potential problems,” says Berner. “So many of the problems we have when we get older are health-related and cause us anxiety.”

How does an older adult start an exercise program? Walking is something almost anyone can do, says Alyshia Drake, a certified personal trainer at New York Fitness in Jackson.

Most of Drake’s clients are in their 50s and 60s. She recommends they start slowly – with a 30-minute walk – then work up to an additional 20 minutes lifting weights in the gym. Talk to your doctor and a trainer before you begin.

“As we get older, we get little bits of things that have gone haywire in our bodies,” Drake says. “You have to be careful. Ask if what you’re doing is making it worse.”


Go to church, volunteer, watch your grandkids, go back to school, get a part-time job.

All these can help you stay social, which experts say is key in dealing with stress. People with a social network tend to adjust better to changes such as retiring, moving and losing loved ones, according to the AARP.

This is different than a support group, a more structured meeting run by a mental health professional or a facilitator with special training. Develop a social network of friends and neighbors when you’re not stressed, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing they will be there for you during difficult times.

What about the Internet? Can, say, Facebook or a chat room give you the kind of connections that help your health?

Perhaps, but face to face is better, Berner says.

“I’ve not seen research on the benefits of Internet contact. It may help, but it doesn’t replace person-to-person contact, which is vital to our emotional well-being.”

Practice mindfulness   yoga-class-2

Whether your technique of choice is meditation, yoga or something less mainstream, mindfulness – being present in the moment – likely has a role to play in relieving stress.

A study in the journal Health Psychology shows a link between increased mindfulness (taught in yoga and meditation) and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase blood sugar, weaken the immune system, disrupt sleep and contribute to heart disease, anxiety, depression and weight gain. For the study, 57 people spent three months in a meditation retreat where they were taught breathing techniques, observation skills and cultivation of positive mental states.

Sonora resident Dee Clifton knows these benefits. She has taught fitness for 26 years and yoga for the past 14. She now instructs weekly classes coordinated by the Area 12 Agency on Aging and attended by about 30 people, ages 60 to 84. Each has a different fitness level.

“I tell them, do whatever you can do,” says Clifton. “Get halfway into a pose. Slowly move in and out of a pose. If it doesn’t feel quite right or doesn’t feel kind to your body, gently and slowly move out of it or skip it altogether.”

Clifton suggests her students focus on things like posture and breathing to decrease stress throughout the day. In one exercise, participants exhale as they visualize expelling tension from their bodies.

It works, says Marta Kinder, 64, of Sugar Pine, a retired high school teacher. She’s been attending Clifton’s classes faithfully since January. So far, she’s lost 12 pounds and feels more relaxed.

“And I have lots more energy,” she adds. “I’m not so stressed about getting stuff done.”

Play with your pet 

There’s something special about being greeted at the door by a furry friend. Spending time with a pet is an easy way to shed the stress of the day.

“Having a pet around helps you calm down,” says Peter Carrillo, a retired clinical health educator who with his wife leads support groups for family caregivers.

While pet-and-owner relationships are usually thought to lead to the greatest stress relief, even a short encounter with an animal can help. In one study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, some people experienced increased output of endorphins and dopamine – substances associated with pleasure and well-being – after just five minutes with an animal.

Hop into bed

Like other types of exercise, sex releases endorphins, which lift your mood and help relieve stress. One study reported in the January 2006 issue of New Scientist magazine found that participants who had intercourse were better able to handle stress in many situations, including public speaking and doing verbal arithmetic, than those who had not had intercourse.

Even if you’re not planning on giving a public address or adding up numbers in your head, sex can still help relieve stress in several ways.

“You enjoy being with someone,” says Carrillo. “Intimacy feels good. It helps you feel reassured, connected, that you’re not alone.”

Sex is something that shouldn’t disappear in your later years, experts say.

“You’re still handsome, you’re still pretty,” Carrillo says. “All this is good stuff. It’s so important, yet it so easily falls to the wayside.”

Laugh out loud

Laughter reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline while increasing levels of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins.

Other benefits include physical release (ever felt exhausted after a good laugh?), an internal workout (laughter exercises the diaphragm) and distraction – forgetting your problems for a moment can do wonders.

Watch a funny video. Go to a comedy film. Crack a joke.

Stolp, the physician, tells the story of his late 101-year-old grandmother and her sense of humor.

“She’d tell stories about her boyfriend, Ben Gay,” he says. “She loved to laugh.”

Take care of yourself

Along with regular exercise, eat nourishing food, maintain a healthy weight and see your doctor regularly.

“That way you have a sense of ‘I’m doing what I can,’ ” Berner says. “If we have that sense, it’s easier to let go of the stressful things we have no say in.”

Symptoms of chronic stress and illness can be the same – indeed, one can lead to the other. They include headaches, colds, weight changes, changes in appetite and increased
alcohol consumption (in general, health experts ask that older adults limit themselves to one drink per day).

Let your doctor know if you are experiencing these things.

“He could say, ‘You’ve got this condition, and we can help you,’” Carrillo says. “Or he could say, ‘It’s stress.’ ”


Books, magazine and websites abound with advice on simplifying your life. The so-called “simplicity movement” began in 1981 with a book by Duane Elgin on creating a life that’s “outwardly simple, inwardly rich.”

For many, that means eliminating all but the essential so they can spend time on what’s most important to them.

Want to simplify? Assess your priorities and make choices. Maybe you enjoy delivering Meals on Wheels but don’t like serving on volunteer boards or committees. Perhaps you’d prefer to spend a few hours a week helping out in your grandchildren’s classrooms.

Turn to your home computer for help. Try online banking to save time balancing the checkbook. Put things like gym memberships and mortgages on automatic payment so you don’t have to spend time paying those bills. E-mail your doctor for a faster response.

Learn to say no. Retired people are often bombarded by requests to help with this or that. Don’t be afraid to turn them down if you’re not excited about what you’re being asked to do.

And when ‘Eight Great’ aren’t enough …

When do you see a therapist, a psychologist or a psychiatrist for help with stress?

“When do you go see somebody about a twisted ankle?” Stolp asks. The answer: “If you can’t do your daily activities.”

Berner agrees. “Has your mood changed significantly? Are your loved ones asking, ‘Are you OK?’ When we’re struggling a bit emotionally, that doesn’t mean we rush out to see a counselor. But we don’t want to wait until we have a deep hole to crawl out of.”

What about medication? It can help, Stolp says, but should only be considered in combination with counseling and after exploring other ways to decrease stress.

Going to all this work to decrease stress may seem like, well, work. But it’s worth it, says Carol Southern, 70, of
Tuolumne. She’s been taking yoga classes for two years, and her family says she’s less anxious.

“I’m constantly involved in things, and yoga gives me a chance to relax,” says Southern, who serves as a sheriff’s community service volunteer and is on the Area 12 Agency on Aging board, among other things. “This is one thing I do for me.”

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland December 15, 2013 13:06
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