Stress in Mid-life: How to Cope

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Why am I feeling so stressed as I enter my midlife years?

Midlife is a challenging time for many women. At this time women's bodies undergo the hormonal changes of menopause, just as they do when we enter puberty. These changes are more dramatic for some women than for others, and do not necessarily account for all the stress we feel at this time of our lives.

As we adjust to the physical and emotional changes, we also have to deal with the many other parts of our lives. We have the responsibilities of paid and unpaid work. We may be caring for our children, grandchildren, and our own aging parents. We might be worried about money and have concerns about our future. At this time, like all others, it's important for us to take care of ourselves.

Our changing bodies demand that we pay attention to them. They remind us that how we take of ourselves now will affect how we live in our later years. After years of caring for others, midlife brings an opportunity for us to take care of ourselves. It's never too late to make healthy choices.

What is stress?

Stress is the natural reaction our bodies have to threatening events. Heartbeat increases. Breathing gets shallower and quicker. Adrenaline and other chemicals are released into the bloodstream. Muscles tense.

Recent research suggests that women react differently to stress than men. While men tend to react with "fight or flight" behavior, this new research suggests that women produce a chemical (oxytocin) which may actually increase bonding or caretaking behaviour.

The biochemical changes that happen when we are under frequent stress can reduce our natural defenses, slow down our immune systems and increase our risk for accidents and disease.

How can I cope with stress?

It's important to recognize that it's not the events we face that cause stress but our reaction to them. It's not realistic or possible to eliminate stress. But we can learn to handle the stress of midlife changes.

Managing stress involves making decisions about how we approach our life situations.

Here are some tips for coping with stress:

  • Learn to recognize the sources to stress in your life. Pay attention to your body's signals.
  • Learn to recognize your feelings.
  • Reduce stressful situations whenever possible. Try saying no to commitments and responsibilities that are no longer rewarding for you. Don't feel guilty for ending relationships that don't meet your needs.
  • Create a network of supportive people in your life. Seek out relationships that nurture you and make you feel good about yourself. Most communities have support groups for a variety of situations. Check newspapers, libraries and phone books for ones in your community.
  • Feed your body. Choose a variety of foods from Canada's Guide to Healthy Eating.
  • Exercise can relieve tension and lift your mood. It can be as simple as walking in your neighbourhood. Ask your doctor about activities that suit your fitness level.
  • Get enough sleep. Many women in midlife have trouble sleeping. Explore non-medical ways to improve your sleep (see resources below).
  • Feed your spirit. Develop old interests or explore new ones.
  • Learn stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, meditation, yoga or tai chi. Explore the books in your local library or try out community centre classes.
  • If you feel overwhelmed by the stress in your life, seek help. There are many kinds of helping professionals who can help you understand the stress in your life. They can also support you while you learn to make changes to reduce stress.

Serious issues such as domestic violence or racism that women face in younger life do not go away in mid-life. However, some women may have more accumulated resources, community supports and experience to deal with these issues as they enter this new phase of their lives.

Where can I go for more information?