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The Stress Factor: How to Manage Stress

From everyday irritations to larger traumas, emotional tension can have serious physical effects.

By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey

It can be a low buzz in the back of your mind  when you think about errands or bills. Sometimes it’s a clenched jaw, hunched shoulders, or butterflies in your stomach. We’re all familiar with the physical sensation of stress. And it’s perfectly normal.

Most of us can’t get through a day without experiencing some kind of stressor and our body’s reaction—a flood of hormones that prepares us for fight or flight to help figure out how to handle the situation. 

The Benefits of Stress

This natural response to stress helps you adjust to new situations. It can even have a positive benefit. 

“Stress can help you grow. It can be a source of motivation for many people,” explains Frances Ruzis, LCSW, Behavioral Health Lead with Clover Health. 

For example, while the stress of the pandemic has been intense, she says she’s seen some positive outcomes as well—like people learning new coping skills and ways to combat the stress they are feeling. 

“People have really had to be resourceful. Older adults are communicating via video with me, and they tell me, ‘I never dreamed I would be able to do this with you.”

With crisis can come opportunity. But understanding the difference between stress you can manage and stress that is overwhelming is important. 

A Common Theme: Stress and Aging 

There’s a stereotypical image of our “golden years” being very easygoing. Living on a fixed income, caring for spouses and grandchildren, managing chronic illness—our golden years deliver a wealth of potential reasons to stress out. 

“There are great rewards but also great stressors that come with aging,” Ruzis says. While some stressors are expected, like those around grief and loss, COVID-19 has resulted in new levels of burnout for seniors. 

“Once the pandemic hit, many seniors who did not have a history of mental health issues were saying, ‘Because I am now confined from seeing family, going out to events, and socializing, I’m depressed and anxious for the first time in my life,’” she explains. 

The number one stressor that Ruzis sees in her experience? Loneliness. “It’s something we don’t talk about enough, but it’s so common,” she says. 

“People are living longer, and that is a wonderful thing. At the same time, you’re at a point in your life where you may have lost a lot of people you love—parents, siblings, people you’ve known your whole life. So your aging years can also be coupled with a lot of grief and loss.” 

In Good Company: How to Reach out For Help 

The good news? You don’t have to face any of this alone. 

“Just trying to interact with others is important,” says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Clover Health. 

“Having a social circle or someone to confide in can be helpful, especially if stressors are chronic, like financial matters and illness.” 

Reach out to family, friends, an elder or counselor at your place of worship, or a neighbor. Share your concerns with your doctor, too. “Talking to your doctor about stress is important,” Dr. Dharmarajan explains. 

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Stress

If it feels hard to open up to your doctor, try starting with a simple statement:

• “I’m having trouble with anxiety.”

• “Lately, I’ve been worrying a lot.”

• “Stress makes it hard for me to sleep.” 

Talk about techniques to address stress,” Dr. Dharmarajan says. “Also, your doctor may suggest a complete checkup to understand how stress is impacting your body. Sometimes stress can actually lead to illness.” 

Stress Symptoms

The physical signs of stress include higher blood pressure, trouble sleeping, exhaustion, headaches, digestive problems, aches and pains, and sadness. 

Illustration of two people sitting on a bench in the park.

Talk It Out: How Therapy Can Help 

You have options for help. Consider therapy. “Therapy does not have to be for a specific condition like depression or anxiety,” Ruzis says. “Anybody can go to therapy. You can be stressed out at work and decide, ‘I want to talk to someone about this and learn new ways to cope.’ Or ‘I’m struggling with the loss of my spouse, and I need help getting through this.’ 

“Therapy doesn’t have to be long term either. It could just be a few weeks or months.” 

Everyone can benefit from talking with a professional. And today there are many options— from telehealth visits on platforms like BetterHealth to traditional in-person meetings. 

Remember, getting help today could prevent more serious problems down the line, Ruzis says. “Many times you can learn coping skills to prevent you from developing depression or anxiety,” she explains. 

“You can intervene before it becomes more serious— before you find yourself not being able to sleep at night.”

Clover Health’s Behavioral Health Department 

Ruzis knows firsthand. She oversees a group of five social workers in Clover Health’s Behavioral Health Department. This team assesses mental health conditions and then connects members to resources in the community, such as psychiatrists, therapists, and even social services. 

“We will help them apply for Medicaid and other state assistance programs. We can even help them fill out the applications,” Ruzis explains, noting that the application process can be a source of stress for many members. 

“Using mental health resources is critically important,” agrees Dr. Dharmarajan. “Therapy can be a great way to process things that are causing stress. It can also create increased self-awareness, which in turn makes it easier to address the root cause.” 

Illustration of two people stretching in a living room.

Mindfulness and Movement

Talk therapy isn’t the only way to reduce stress. Ruzis says studies show that exercise and meditation are very effective as well. 

Beyond programs in the community and in-person classes, you’ll find applications on your smartphone and videos online that can help you find your calm. 

Headspace is an app that helps you set up a consistent meditation routine. On YouTube, search “meditation for anxiety,” “meditation for healing,” or anything related to the problem you are experiencing. 

“There are meditations for everything out there,” she says, noting that the key is consistency. 

“Set a goal to meditate for a minute a day. Then maybe the next week try two minutes,” she suggests. 

You don’t have to sit still or even lay down if that’s not comfortable. “Walking meditation or sitting in a chair and listening to a guided meditation are great options.” 

Exercise Can Relieve Stress

Exercise is another way to relieve stress—and it doesn’t have to be at the gym. Enjoy a walk outside, a swim in your local indoor pool, or even chair exercises, for example. 

Ruzis also notes that distraction techniques are great cognitive behavioral therapy skills you can use at any time. Distractions help you focus on something else when you’re feeling strong negative emotions. 

“Coloring books, puzzles, and hobbies you enjoy are all great options. Music is particularly effective because it directly engages your senses,” Ruzis says. 

Engaging your senses is a type of grounding technique that can really help ease anxiety. 

So light a candle, take a few deep breaths, and remember— you are not alone. 

This article was originally published in the fall 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine. Want to see more articles like this? Subscribe to Clover Living magazine for free (if you aren’t already subscribed) here.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan

Published on 11/16/22

Photo credit: Getty