As we enter adulthood and start feeling the weight of responsibility, it’s easy for stress to creep into our lives. And in some cases, stress can be a good thing, serving as a powerful motivator at work or in school. But when stress starts to have an effect on our sleep, our eating habits and our relationships, it can be detrimental to our health.
This is especially true for seniors.
Whether it’s worrying about having enough money for retirement or the fear of experiencing limited mobility, there are many things seniors may be stressed about. But these common stressors shouldn’t hold you back from staying in the moment and enjoying every single day. There are many holistic ways for managing stress and anxiety, and we talked to Steve Mavros, owner of the Healing Arts Centers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about the best relaxation techniques for seniors.
With over 15 years of experience as a practicing acupuncturist, Mavros knows the human body--and its responses to different experience--better than most. When the body experiences stress, it releases a hormone called cortisol, which creates that “fight or flight” response in the mind and body. Elevated levels of this stress hormone can affect your sleep, eating habits, weight, and your risk of depression. Mavros has seen firsthand that acupuncture can help lower cortisol levels in the body and help you to relax.
“There is definitely evidence that acupuncture can be used as a means to modulate cortisol in the body,” says Mavros.
A study published in the Endocrinology journal in 2013 examined the results from experiments with rats, care of a team of researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center. The goal of their research was to demonstrate “how acupuncture can significantly reduce the stress hormone response in an animal model of chronic stress.” They were pleased to find that the biology behind the ancient art of acupuncture supported their hypothesis. By targeting the key pathway for stress, which is the same in both rats and humans, which is also known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), they were able to lower cortisol levels in a similar way that some anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications do, making acupuncture an ideal way for managing stress and anxiety.
When it comes to holistic geriatric stress management, meditation is one of the best long-term solutions, as keeping a regular meditation practice can actually alter your brain for the better. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and her team of researchers performed two studies on the effects of meditation on the brain and found that, in addition to having a significant impact on parts of the brain that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, the amygdala, which regulates cortisol and the “fight or flight” response shrunk in those with a regular meditation practice, leading to less stress.
Mavros agrees that meditation can have a calming effect on the body and mind, and, best of all, it’s something you can do for free at home.
“Mindfulness can be as simple or expansive as you want it to be,” says Mavros. “There are some great free apps that you can download to meditate yourself at home, including a body scan meditation, which will slowly help you become aware of and relax all the muscles throughout the body.”
When it comes to managing stress and anxiety, tai chi is one of the most effective relaxation techniques for seniors. A slower, less rigorous type of exercise than yoga, tai chi can be great for seniors with varied levels of fitness ability.
“Tai Chi is really an incredible thing for anyone, but especially seniors,” says Mavros. “The combination of breathing and movement really help with stress and balance. And, if you are more balanced and less likely to experience a fall, you are probably also less stressed!”
An article published in The Atlantic in June 2014 entitled, “Why Tai Chi Makes Sense For The Elderly,” the author cites a study that compared the “health of two similar groups of people in their 70s, one who had been regularly practicing Tai Chi and one who hadn't. The Tai Chi group showed greater flexibility in both large and small arteries (by over 40 percent), as well as greater muscle strength in their knee extensors and flexors. They also had lower blood pressure.” It’s also worth noting that Tai Chi has been used as a method of anti-aging exercise in China for over 2,000 years and has been shown to improve arthritis and Parkinson’s symptoms.
Similar to Tai Chi, yoga is also an ancient “meditation in motion” technique, although yoga dates back to the earliest civilizations in India. And, just like Tai Chi, yoga also combines movement with breathing techniques that aim to calm both the body and mind.
“The goal with yoga is really to train your body to breathe through anything--first on the mat, and then out in the world,” says Mavros. “And it works because yoga aims to get the body into postures that help open it up, which can be scary and painful at first and cause your cortisol to spike. But, when you learn to work through the discomfort using mindful breath, you can calm yourself--and your cortisol levels--down.”
When it comes to geriatric stress management, yoga is an excellent tool to take advantage of, especially considering that it can even be done in the comfort of your own home.
Keep Calm, Carry On
The physical and mental effects that stress can have on the body and mind are not ideal for aging gracefully. In fact, studies have shown that stress can actually shorten our lifespan by shortening the length of our DNA strands. While there are other factors involved, like diet and exercise, stress is something that all of us can live without. By practicing any of these relaxation techniques for seniors, you may actually be adding years onto your life.
Steve Mavros is Licensed in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to receive his Masters of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at the oldest acupuncture school in the U.S., the New England School of Acupuncture. He is also the owner of the Healing Arts Center located in Old City, Philadelphia, with satellite offices in Rittenhouse, Bryn Mawr, King of Prussia and Exton.