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HomeHealth & FitnessHow The Stress Response Changes As We Age + What To Do...

How The Stress Response Changes As We Age + What To Do About It



First, it’s important to note that everyone reacts to stress differently and you can’t pigeonhole entire age groups. But generally speaking, research shows that your ability to manage stress isn’t static—it waxes and wanes over time.

Part of this is inevitable and biological. Hormonal fluctuations during puberty and perimenopause can make us particularly susceptible to stress during these periods, for example. Past circumstances also play a role. Some people have had to go through more periods of stress and trauma than others, which can affect the way they react to hardship.

But interestingly enough, there is a growing body of research finding that our ability to regulate our emotions seems to improve with age. Take one study out of Stanford University, which included 184 adults of various ages. Starting in 1993, participants were asked to record their emotions (both positive and negative) multiple times over the course of a week once every five years. This data collection lasted 15 years, and the results were published in 2011.

At the end of the study, researchers found that, overall, self-reported emotional well-being increased with age. As participants got older, their outlooks also tended to even out and there was less variability between positive and negative emotions. And finally, those who experienced relatively more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived over the study period, suggesting a link between emotions and longevity. “The observation that emotional well-being is maintained and in some ways improves across adulthood is among the most surprising findings about human aging to emerge in recent years,” the paper reads.

Now, this study didn’t focus on how stress, in particular, affects mood over time. But some shorter-term research focused on stress has also found that older adults tend to maintain a positive mood in the face of it than younger ones do.

Neuropsychologist turned stress educator Cynthia Ackrill, M.D., suspects that this has to do with the widened viewpoint that age can bring. “You’ve been through a lot so you have a longer perspective to know that this too shall pass,” she tells mbg.

Amy Lorek, Ph.D., of the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State University adds that, on average, older adults have accrued more self-awareness with time, giving them a better handle on their personal stressors.

“When we have a better understanding of our lives, we get better at selecting the things that are meaningful and important for us,” Lorek says, adding that “older people actively opt out of things that are going to produce stress.”

This may be true more generally, but again, Ackrill reminds us that stress is personal. While someone who has always practiced healthy stress management routines might find them strengthened with age, in her work she’s seen the opposite to be true too. Someone with poor coping mechanisms might find that they have even more trouble handling stress as they get older. Some relaxing practices like exercise and social interaction can also become more difficult for older folks, especially if they have mobility issues or live alone.

The good news is that stress management is a skill that can always be trained—and it’s never too late to practice it.



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