Brain Health: Maximizing Coping As We Age

by Karen D. Sullivan, Ph.D., ABPP

Stressful life events occur in all of our lives from time to time. Research suggests that older adults can experience prolonged stress due to a higher incidence of events that are beyond one’s control including chronic illness, reduced mobility, caregiving demands and the passing of friends and family. The impact of such life events on physical and mental health can be significant and include depression and cardiovascular disease. Reducing the effect of stress on our well-being requires us to address problems as they arise and identify resources that enhance coping. The frustration, hopelessness and feelings of being overwhelmed that often accompany chronic stress can make it feel impossible to address stressful issues or even know where to begin.

The first step is to identify that a problem exists. Pay attention to your body and thoughts. Internal cues such as muscle tension, headaches, shallow breathing, sleeplessness and tightness in the chest nudge us to recognize an unresolved problems needs attention. Feeling worried more often than you are calm and confident is a cue that a problem exists. If you decide that your stress level is too high, consider the following steps:

Make a list of all the issues that have consumed the majority of your physical and mental energy in past past week. Order the items on the list according to the amount of worry they have caused and how much time you spend thinking about them. Commit to thinking through each issue one at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Identify the coping skills you have been using to date and decide to make some improvements. Coping skills are tools, activities and strategies for reducing stress and can be healthy (exercise, reading, prayer, and spending time with family and friends) or unhealthy (drinking alcohol, smoking, overeating, withdrawing or denying there is a problem).

Increase healthy coping by adding new or improved resources to your problem solving “toolbox.” Internal resources include learning to say “no” when you feel pressured to do something you’d rather not, seeing the lighter side of a situation, not focusing on the worst that could happen and fostering hope that things can change for the better. External resources include asking for help or support from family, friends and community support such as your church or senior center.

Express yourself. Interpersonal conflicts and poor communication are two of the biggest sources of stress. Being unable to express your needs, concerns or frustrations worsens a stressful situation and can be toxic to relationships. Improving your assertiveness skills, i.e., standing up for your point of view while also respecting the rights and beliefs of the other person, can go a long way in reducing stress. The keys to assertive communication are using “I” statements to express your feelings without blaming others, using a relaxed and genuine tone and having a willingness to find solutions to the problem.

If you continue to feel a high level of stress, reach out to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage stress more effectively, identify situations that contribute to chronic stress and develop a plan for taking control and achieving the inner peace we all deserve.


Dr. Sullivan, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or