Stress is a virtually universal feature of midlife. We're all spread way too thin by our busy lives and many of us feel that we just can't keep up with all the demands on our time. There is encouraging news, however, from recent studies showing that it is possible to take control over your time, resources, and energy, and lower your stress levels. Here, I'll highlight specific ways that 50- and 60-somethings can live a more stress-free existence.
We begin with the fascinating concept that stress begets stress, a process called "stress generation." UCLA researchers Nicole Eberhart and Constance Hammen, writing in the April 2009 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, tested the notion that we cause at least some of our own stress, particularly the kind that relates to conflicts with other people. Often, these are some of the most stressful situations we face. Eberhart and Hammen found that women with a tendency to become depressed drove away their romantic partners by constant needs for reassurance. The more they drove their partners away, the more stressed they became which, inevitably made them even more depressed.
The women in the Eberhart and Hammen study were college-aged, and so the findings might not apply to people in their midlife years. However, a 2012 study by University of Texas psychologist Marci Gleason and her collaborators, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, showed that even in midlife, some individuals still create their own stress by causing strife in their relationships.
Gleason and her collaborators tested over 1,200 people ages 55-64 at one point in time on measures of personality traits, or long-standing dispositions, and personality disorders, which are long-term maladaptive ways of behaving, feeling, and understanding yourself and others. Six months later, they asked participants to report on their major life events. If stress generation is a valid concept, the people with chronic personality malaise should have reported a greater number of undesirable life events.
The life events that Gleason's participants reported as occurring within the 6-month period ran the gamut from death of a spouse, parent or child to major financial problems, difficulties with the police or courts, getting fired, having something stolen, and breaking up a long-term relationship. The most frequently reported event was death of a close friend or another relative (16%), followed by serious illness or injury to another person (15%) or to oneself (11%). Then, putting stress generation to the test, Gleason and her team calculated the relationship between the 11 personality qualities they studied and the total frequency of stressful life events. Two of the personality attributes stood out as generating the most stress: high scores on "neuroticism" (the tendency to be anxious and worry excessively) and borderline personality disorder, a chronic instability of self-concept accompanied by a tendency to have extreme emotional reactions. In other words, among these midlife adults, being anxious or highly unstable at Time 1 predicted having a greater number of stressful life events at Time 2.
We can conclude that being constantly on edge, prone to riding an emotional roller coaster, and worrying that things will go wrong can set the stage for more things in your life actually to go wrong. Once what you fear begins to occur (people become ill and die, relationships end), your emotional equanimity further deteriorates, and a negative cycle becomes set into motion. Although other research shows that people become better able to cope with stress as they get older, this study shows that your personality can still cause complications in your life.
People's personalities can change at any point in the adult years, and just because you're neurotic now, it doesn't mean you have to stay neurotic forever. From the Gleason et al study you can see why this might be important, particularly as you get older and the odds increase that one of these negative life events will happen to you.
To keep stress from generating more stress in your life, you can start with these 4 basic steps:
1. Recognize how much you may be contributing to your own daily stress levels. Without getting into a blame the victim mentality, there may be ways you can minimize your stress levels by keeping your emotions in check when you're around the people who are important to you in your life.
2. Build your mental health by building your physical health. Moving your body can alleviate your emotional burden. You don't have to be an exercise fanatic, but spending some of your day getting your blood flowing will help boost your mood, which will further break the stress-life event cycle.
3. Engage your sense of humor. One of the most under-rated coping methods, a good laugh (even if it's just to yourself) can recharge your emotional gas tank. Research on humor and coping shows that the non-hostile kind of humor (that doesn't poke fun at other people) can help you cheer up, and cheer up the other people around you at the same time.
4. Recognize the difference between a hassle and a major life event. Many of the participants in the Eberhart and Hammen study tended to blow out of proportion the extent to which a life event had actually occurred to them. Once you're in the "I'm stressed" mindset, you tend to magnify even small problems way out of proportion. By then, you're feeling overwhelmed and unable to manage what now seems like an insurmountable problem.
These four steps to minimize stress may not make all your problems go away, but they can provide a great touching off point. We know that stress is in the mind of the beholder, and by adjusting your mindset, you can also improve your mood, and ultimately, your relationships.