We are certainly living in stressful times. Aging and caregiving by themselves can be very stressful, even without additional health concerns and COVID-19. It has been said that the adversities we are facing are “unprecedented.” Especially for those who have loved ones in facilities where they cannot see them face to face, the stress is particularly great. I think everyone is aware of the negative effects from stress. High blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, stomach problems, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues are just some of the ways our bodies react negatively to stress. Now, more than ever, we need to be taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That can be challenging, but there are ways we can try to manage our stress levels.
- Exercise. I hope everyone is seeing a real trend here in this series. There are fewer interventions that have the same positive effect on the physical body, cognition, and emotions like exercise. Exercise makes us feel good. It increases the release of endorphins in the brain, which are our “feel good” neurotransmitters. Try not to think about exercising as a “have to”, but as a “get to.” Reap the benefits of exercise and be thankful that you are able to engage any way you can. Take a walk, learn to dance, or work with weights in your chair if you are unable to walk.
- Yoga and tai chi. Both are low impact and beneficial especially for older adults. Both have been shown to be effective for stress reduction. Yoga focuses on holding poses while tai chi is more like a very slow dance, involving slow movements.
- Meditation. The benefits of meditation are well documented. This is a practice that focuses on concentration and bringing yourself back to the moment. It allows you to learn to calm your body and your mind. There are various YouTube videos on meditation. There is also a wonderful app called “Calm” that will guide you through different meditations.
- Guided imagery. Guided imagery is just what it sounds like. A narrator will guide you to a peaceful place in your mind, utilizing detailed descriptions and your imagination. Dartmouth University has a wonderful website with guided imagery exercises, as well as breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, muscle relaxation exercises, and soothing music. https://students.dartmouth.edu/wellness-center/wellness-mindfulness/mindfulness-meditation/guided-audio-recordings
- Breathing exercises. Deep breathing exercises can help us relax because it mimics the way we breathe when we are relaxed. This has been shown to be a highly effective stress management tool. There are programs that can guide you through the exercise, like “Calm”, the Dartmouth University website, or instructional videos on YouTube. Basically, you will want to be in comfortable clothes, find a comfortable position, and breathe in through your nose slowly for 5 seconds, and out through the nose slowly for 5 seconds. You may wish to focus on a single word like “calm”, or on part of the body, like the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
- Hobbies. Set aside time for hobbies like reading, crafts, or doing something you enjoy.
- Connect with friends and family. Isolation can be stressful. Stay connected via phone calls, letters, Facetime, Zoom, etc.
- Sleep. There has been a real recognition on how important sleep is to our well-being, and particularly to our cognition. It’s hard to be present and focused if we are not getting enough restorative sleep at night. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep. Keep the room cool and dark, shut off devices a couple of hours before heading to bed, limit caffeine and alcohol, get some sunlight in the morning, and exercise, but not too close to bedtime.
- Music Therapy. I don’t think there are many things that can “take you back” like music can. Listening to the music you loved in high school, or hearing “your song” can stir emotions. A good playlist filled with soothing music can be quite effective and is an evidence-based intervention for stress reduction.
I hope you will find some of these suggestions helpful and will be able to implement them and see a reduction in your stress level. Remember to take time for self-care during these stressful times. Even taking a moment to sit outside, feel the sun and wind on your face, listen to the birds, and observe nature for a few moments can be a nice respite.