The holidays are a time for joy and celebration; however, there is often stress associated with these events, particularly for older adults, their families, and their caregivers. Increasing demands on time, finances, and taking care of loved ones can take their toll, even when we’re just trying to relax and unwind. Implementing evidence-based strategies and data-driven interventions may ward off the winter blues and help end the year on a high note.
Stress and resilience
The capacity to cope with, or “bounce back,” from stress or adversity is known as “resilience.” Resilience exists both as a stable component of one’s personality, known as trait resilience, but also in more dynamic forms that can increase (or decrease) depending on a variety of factors in one’s life.
Being able to increase one’s capacity to deal with stress and to address adversity head-on, through fostering greater resilience, is an excellent asset when your plate is particularly full, such as during the holidays.
Using large-scale epidemiological studies that follow thousands of individuals over many years, it’s possible to identify factors that lead some people (and not others) to be happier and healthier in the face of stressors.
For example, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging is currently following more than 50,000 Canadians, collecting data on many aspects of their lives such as their psychological, physical, and functional health. This study has been an invaluable resource for researchers in being able to disentangle how and why some individuals are more or less resilient.
Using these data, my colleagues and I recently identified factors such as maintaining a healthy weight, being a nonsmoker, and getting higher quality sleep as predictors of greater resilience among aging Canadians who live with multimorbidity (multiple health conditions).
Diet and exercise: Good for mental and physical health
Being physically active and maintaining a healthy diet are associated not only with positive physiological outcomes but also with better mental health outcomes, such as greater resilience.
Recently, one of my graduate students conducted a comprehensive review of every randomized control trial investigating the relationship between physical activity/exercise on perceived stress in adults aged 50 and above.
This review revealed that even low-intensity exercise forms, such as qigong, have strong supporting evidence for stress reduction. Incorporating small incremental changes in your diet and exercise may pay dividends for your mental health.
Social networks: Quality and quantity
One of the most important resilience fostering resources is social connectedness. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining these connections has been difficult, particularly for older adults. An important aspect of social connections is not just having a large group of friends, but also having people who you trust to count on.
Using the National Survey of Health and Development, a study that has followed 5,362 Brits from birth in 1946 to the present day, my colleagues examined the long-term implications of social connectedness on levels of resilience. We found that people who had a greater number of high quality social connections had the highest levels of resilience.
Building up resilience
In dealing with holiday-related stressors, building up your resilience may be a way to not only have a positive impact on your own holiday experience but also help those for whom you’re providing care.
Taking the time to make small incremental improvements in diet, exercise, and social connections is an evidence-backed way to improve your resilience to these stressors. Although you may not be able to control what sorts of stressors you experience, by fostering greater resilience you may be better armed to handle them.
Improving your diet, exercise, and social connectedness can take many forms and doesn’t need to involve a drastic change to make a difference. Small incremental improvements over time can have a huge effect.
- Go for a walk.
- Add a few extra vegetables to your plate.
- Pick up the phone and call a friend.
Behavioural changes don’t need to be lifestyle-altering to have a big impact.
Stress and the sandwich generation
The “sandwich generation” refers to the generation of people who are both caregivers for their parents and for their own children. In Canada, more than 2 million people identify as being part of this sandwich generation. This circumstance presents a unique set of stressors, ranging from psychological to professional and economic realms.
For the sandwich generation, an important component of addressing the needs of the people under their care is taking care of their own mental health. Connect with friends, eat well, exercise, and put yourself in the best position to have positive mental health yourself, so that you can be better equipped to help others in your care.