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It's well established that experiencing stress can harm your physical health. However, there are steps you can take to respond to stress and avoid those negative health outcomes.

One of the most important things you can do seems counter-intuitive... build resilience by overcoming stress. One of the best ways to prepare yourself for this "mental battle" is proactive coping.

Proactive coping refers to behaviors that allow people to avoid future stressors or prepare themselves to respond to those stressors. These can be behavioral, such as saving money to deal with unexpected expenses, or cognitive, such as visualizing how to deal with potential challenges. We can also think of proactive coping as a way of helping people continue to work toward their goals, despite these challenges.

In a recent study, participants completed an initial survey that focused on understanding goal-oriented proactive coping behaviors that the participants engaged in. The participants then completed daily surveys for the next eight days, recording the stressors they experienced each day, as well as their physical health symptoms.

The results were profound. Individuals who consistently engaged in proactive coping, such as thinking about what they need in order to be successful, experienced fewer negative physical health symptoms on stressful days.

GOOD NEWS! Stress Decreases with Age

Another recent study showed that the number of daily stressors, and people's reactivity to daily stressors, decreases with age. Younger individuals may be juggling more, including jobs, families and homes, all of which create instances of daily stress. But as we age, our social roles and motivations change. Older people talk about wanting to maximize and enjoy the time they have.

The research team utilized data from the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE), a national study led by Almeida at Penn State that has collected comprehensive data on daily life from over 40,000 days in the lives of more than 3,000 adults across a 20-year time span, starting in 1995. Respondents were aged 25 to 74 when the study began and were invited to participate in the NSDE from the larger Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) project led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute on Aging.

Respondents participated in telephone interviews that assessed daily levels of stress for eight consecutive days. These daily assessments were repeated at approximately nine-year intervals, providing a longitudinal daily diary across 20 years. The researchers noted a decrease in the effects of daily stress both in the number of daily stressors that people reported, as well as their emotional reactivity to them. For example, 25-year-olds reported stressors on nearly 50% of days, while 70-year-olds reported stressors on only 30% of days.

In addition to the decrease in the number of daily stressors reported, the research team also found that as people age, they are less emotionally reactive to daily stressors when they do happen.

The study showed that daily stress steadily decreases until mid-50s, when people are the least affected by stress exposures. While these findings show a decrease in reports of, and reactivity to, daily stressors into the mid-50s, indicators show that older age (into the late 60s and early 70s) may bring more challenges and a slight increase in instances of daily stress. With this new research, it's encouraging to see that as we age, we begin to deal with these stressors better.

Exercise to reduce stress

Exercise is remarkably effective for managing psychological stress. Exercise can boost mood, reduce tension and improve sleep (all of which are impacted by stress) and ultimately this can support people to approach their challenges in a more balanced way. Numerous studies support the positive effect of exercise on stress. Physical activity significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety in a recent study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.

The reason exercise is so effective in squashing stress is fairly simple. Exercise causes your body to produce more endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that boost your mood. Movement also combats elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol while improving blood flow.

Ready to get moving and combat the stresses of daily life? Not sure where (or how) to start? Just send me a message!

- Dr Peters


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