Keep Sharp by Reducing Stress

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Part of Staying Sharp For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Certain qualities are among the most important skills and behaviors for reducing stress and creating stress resilience. How many of the attributes in the following sections describe you? If you can’t check off all (or any!) of the items, don’t worry; you can change old habits and learn new ones.

Managing your stress isn’t a magical process. It’s about mastering new behaviors and finding new ways of looking at yourself and your world. Try these tips:

  • Know how to relax. You need to know how to let go of tension, relax your body, and quiet your mind. There is no one right way to relax. Some people may favor meditation, focused breathing, and imagery, while others may prefer a more active approach such as progressive muscle relaxation.

    Attaining a state of greater relaxation isn’t limited to formal approaches. Any activity that distracts you from the stressors of your world can be relaxing: a hot bath, a stroll in the park, a cup of (decaffeinated) coffee, a good book, or a favorite TV program. All can provide a relaxing escape from stress.

  • Eat right and exercise often. The foods you eat can play an important role in controlling your stress levels — or making them worse. Your body needs a balanced, healthy diet to maximize your ability to cope. This means giving your body the right nutrients that supply you with adequate reserves of vitamins, minerals, and other essential elements. And don’t forget to drink liquids throughout the day. Your body and brain need to be adequately hydrated if you want to stay sharp.

    Engage in some form of physical activity regularly — at least three times a week and, when possible, more often. It can be participating in a sport or walking on a treadmill. Your exercise regime doesn’t have to be fancy or overdone. Walking, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and parking farther away whenever you can are often overlooked forms of exercise.

  • Don’t worry about the unimportant stuff. Know the difference between what’s truly important and what isn’t. Put things into perspective. Many — if not most — of life’s stressors are relatively inconsequential. One good way of putting things into perspective is asking yourself, “On a scale of one to ten, how would I rate the relative importance of my stressor?”

Remember that eights, nines, and tens are the biggies — major life problems such as a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, a major financial loss, losing your job, and so on. The fours, fives, sixes, and sevens are problems of moderate importance — a lost wallet, a broken-down car, or a broken water heater. The ones, twos, and threes are your minor worries or stressors — you forget your wallet, your watch battery dies, or you get a bad haircut.

  • Try not to get angry often. Anger is a stress emotion you can largely do without. Knowing how to avoid becoming angry and losing your temper is a skill well worth mastering. Learning how to control the expression of your anger can also spare you a lot of grief and regret.

    Most anger comes from distorted thinking. You may have low frustration tolerance or unrealistic expectations of others (and of yourself) that trigger you to feel angry when they aren’t met. Maybe you exaggerate your inability to cope with small discomforts by “catastrophizing and awfulizing” or creating some “can’t-stand-it-itis.” Groom yourself to be calmer and more accepting of life’s challenges instead of lashing out in anger. You’ll be healthier (lower blood pressure) and less stressed and have a better outlook on life if you take your ups and downs in stride.

  • Live according to your values. Examine your values and goals, assessing whether they truly represent who you are and where you want to go in life. Pursuing values that aren’t reflective of the kind of life you want can lead you to an unhappy and stressful place. Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of my life? What is truly important to me?” Begin by clarifying and articulating your important wants and goals.
  • Have a good sense of humor. Laugh at life’s hassles and annoyances. Be able to laugh at yourself, and don’t take yourself too seriously. And remember that bit of wisdom, “He who laughs, lasts.”