Are you stressed out?

When we hit 50, most of us anticipate life will miraculously fall into place, and worries and insecurities we had will vanish with our less hectic and work-obsessed lives. The reality for most isn’t exactly the stress-free life we’d hoped for. This week: stress and its impact. Next week: how to cope with stress.

When she retired from teaching three years ago Brenda Noble, 56, didn’t imagine that she would still be lying awake nights feeling that familiar anxiety that accompanies her bouts with stress. “I thought that when I retired my stress level would go down, but that hasn’t been the case,” says Noble. “I think I’ve found new things to be stressed about.”

If it’s true that one of the most often reported sources of stress is work, why aren’t we all living stress-free once we hang up our suits for the last time? Because, as Noble says, we simply find new stressors to fill the void, including everything from concerns about finances, our parents’ health, our own health and our children’s futures.

How stressed are we?
In 2000, the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s annual report card on the health of Canadians found that 43 per cent of adts are overwhelmed by the stress of their jobs, families or finance. For many 50-plus, these situations are further exacerbated by the stress and anxiety of the poor market economy, which has dealt a serious blow to our retirement savings, as well as the undependable state of this country’s health-care system.

According to the National Academy of Stress in the U.S., as much as 70 per cent of all problems that physicians deal with are either directly caused by stress or are stress-related. A study by Duke University researchers, which appeared in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2002, emphasizes the important role stress management can play on our health. Researchers studied men who had a history of coronary artery disease (CAD) and found that either regular exercise or stress management training, had the most profound result in reduced coronary artery disease-related events and significantly decreased their medical costs.

Next page: What is stress, and how does it affect us?

What is stress?
Stress is a biological reaction to a physical or emotional danger. When the brain detects a threat, it sends a message to release hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, and to nerve impulses to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” As these hormones are released, we experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and blood sugar levels (to provide energy) and a temporary increase in blood cholesterol levels (originally intended to help blood clot in the event of physical harm). All of these reactions provide us with the strength to either fight the perceived threat or the ability to run from it.

There are two different types of stress. Acute stress is actually the good kind, allowing us to act by giving energy to deal with the situation. The other is chronic. According to Dr. David Posen, a stress consultant, family physician and author of a number of books on the subject including Always Change a Losing Game and Staying Afloat When the Water Gets Rough, “Chronic stress is a problem because there is too much, it lasts too long and comes too often.” With stress that is chronic, the body doesn’t have the time to recover between episodes.

Most of us in our lives are not physically threatened anymore, but anything that threatens our self-esteem or self-confidence will be experienced just as stressfully as the classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and probably these situations are more the cause of a stress reaction in today’s world,” says Posen.

How does it affect us?
All of the reactions going on in our bodies do have consequences. Unchecked chronic stress will exacerbate chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. According to Posen, stress doesn’t cause health conditions, but it makes pre-existing health conditions worse. For example, the increased blood sugar during a stress response can play havoc with a diabetic’s blood sugar readings, and a person who suffers from high cholesterol will see their cholesterol shoot even higher during a period of stress response. High blood pressure will also rise during stressful periods. Both high cholesterol and high blood pressure are contributing factors to heart disease. But some experts feel stress plays a more active role. Dr. Richard Earle, director of the Canadian Stress Institute, a charitable foundation in Toronto that provides public education and professional training, reports, “About half of all sudden cardiac deaths are attributed to chronic stress and more particularly to intense acute stress periods.”

Another area greatly affected by stress is our immune system. “Within 20 minutes, you can track the effects of acute stress on the strength of the immune system,” says Earle. When our immune system is shot, we are more susceptible to disease and viruses. And a recent study in the journal Neuroscience has linked stress to increased brain aging.

Next page: Causes and signs of stress

What are the most common causes?
According to an Ipsos-Reid/CTV/Globe and Mail poll, for most Canadians who are still in the workforce (43 per cent), job stress seems to top the list of things keeping them up at night. A close second (39 per cent) is finances. The 50-plus and those who have had to re-enter the workforce or work longer because of the beating their RRSPs, investments and pensions have taken know only too well the stress that goes with the uncertainty of their economic future and the pressure to get or stay in the workforce. Other stressors include health, worries about children and personal relationships.

Earle points to 1990 as the watershed point for our growing stress. “Around 1990, careers and everything geared toward the economy became much more uncertain for people, and the ability to predict a stable satisfying future began to suffer,” he says. “From 1990 to 1999, stress-related disabilities more than doubled, and prescriptions for anti-anxiety sedatives and anti-depressants began to rival cardiovascular drugs in terms of dollars spent.”

Signs of stress
Symptoms of stress manifest themselves in four key areas: physical, mental, emotional and behavioural. Suffering just a few of these symptoms is a sign that your stress needs to be addressed.

  • Behavioural manifestations of stress include smoking or drinking more, compulsive eating, nail biting, yelling, blaming or swearing. 
  • Emotional effects include feeling tense, nervous, frustrated, depressed or anxious. “There are other causes of depression but in a lot of the people who have chronic stress, it manifests itself as depression,” says Posen.
  • Mental issues include trouble concentrating, impaired memory and an inability to make decisions. 
  • Physical symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, chest pain or tightness, constipation, sleep disruptions, fatigue, frequent colds, teeth grinding and loss of appetite.

Take our stress test online and see how stressed you are, and what kind of stress you may have.  Next week: dealing with stress.