How Best to Handle Stress: Take a Lesson from Older Adults

You’re under stress, aren't you? So am I. And that won't change.

If you're a young adult trying to complete your education, seek direction in life, and handle adult responsibilities, you know what stress is.

If you’re a middle-aged adult working long hours, raising kids, negotiating relationship problems, cooking, cleaning, and trying to keep your home from falling into ruin, you know what stress is.

If you're an older adult dealing with doctor’s appointments, illness, loss, the upheaval of retirement, and uncertainty about the future, you know what stress is.

Everyone experiences stress. Reducing stress may be possible, but eliminating it isn't.

So how shall we deal with its demands? Where can you learn how to respond well to the challenges you face every day? Well, you could learn how to handle stress from an older adult! Cope with life's hassles using the strategies that many older adults use.

Cope like an older adult

This recommendation is based on a 2014 study by psychologists Oliver K. Schilling and Manfred Diehl. Every day for a month, Schilling and Diehl had both younger and older adults record the stresses and emotions they experienced. Not surprisingly, study participants had more negative emotions on days that stressful events occurred. Younger and older adults didn't differ in the amount of negative emotion they experienced. However, the picture changed when the researchers looked at "stressor pile-up," that is, periods when stressful events occurred several days in a row. Stresses often do seem to come in bursts, with their combined effects beating us down so far it's hard to recover. When study participants were faced with several days of stress, older adults had fewer negative emotions than younger adults. The authors suggest that older adults have effective coping strategies that don't prevent initial negative reactions to the stressor but eventually provide relief.

What effective coping mechanisms have older adults developed? Earlier, study co-author Manfred Diehl had collaborated with two other researchers to examine the actual strategies used by younger and older adults. These scientists found two main ways that the two groups differ: older adults both handle immediate impulses better and use more effective thinking strategies.

Practice impulse control

First, older adults tend to have better impulse control. They react better. It makes sense that controlling impulses makes for more successful coping. While it may be momentarily satisfying to yell, slam cabinets, or berate someone who's annoyed you, such reactions are likely to worsen rather than relieve the stress you're under. In my work with older adults, I've noticed that they usually restrain immediate urges and instead resolve their negative emotions by waiting until irritation can safely be vented, talking about the situation with a trusted confidant, or praying.

Think strategically

Secondly, older adults use cognitive strategies. Diehl and his colleagues found that older adults often used thinking approaches that helped them distance themselves from disturbing situations. In other words, they found ways to think differently about stresses. Clinical psychologists have identified numerous effective mental strategies. For example, looking for the positives in a mostly negative situation, or avoiding false generalizations such as "Things always turn out badly for me." Another useful cognitive strategy is to put things in context. Looking back at all they've been through in life, older adults have the perspective to realize that, like past stresses, current stresses are likely to eventually subside.

Part of putting things in context is to remember that no matter how severely storms buffet us and how little shelter we can provide for ourselves, God is our strength and shelter. Older adults who have been walking with him for decades have had ample opportunity to observe the truth of passages such as the following:

“When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze (Is. 43:2 NIV)"

So cope with stress by handling it with the strategies used by older adults: redirecting impulses, use thoughts to put the situation in perspective, and have faith in God who time and again has brought us through hardships.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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