More than 40 individuals gathered at the Newtown Senior Center for a Lunch & Learn program about stress and anxiety on February 21.
When asked how many people in the room feel stress in their life, everyone raised their hands — including some people who raised both their hands for emphasis.
Newtown Senior Center Assistant Judy Thomas told The Newtown Bee that she understands many members are greatly impacted by stress in their daily lives, so she hosted this session with Candlewood Valley Health & Rehabilitation Director of Community Outreach Melissa Marici to help seniors learn coping strategies.
The program about stress and anxiety was led by New Milford Counseling Center’s Clinical Director Rebecca Rancourt and therapist Scott Trefny.
The first point they made during their presentation is that while people cannot completely eliminate stress and anxiety, there are techniques that can be learned to reduce and manage it effectively.
“Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, there is good stress…how we respond to stress can be the problem,” Trefny said.
Stress and anxiety can impact a person in a variety of ways physically, causing them to feel headaches and/or stomach aches, pain, dizziness/lightheadedness, worry, overthinking, forgetfulness, isolation, feelings of impending doom, and ruminating thoughts, which is having the same negative thought over and over again.
Seniors in particular might begin feeling more stress and anxiety than in other stages of their lives due to decline in health, the loss of loved ones and friends, memory problems, and fears about aging, falling, being dependent on others, being alone, and death.
As a result, people often turn to negative coping strategies. Excessive sleeping to escape the issue, overeating, isolating or over-scheduling yourself, drinking alcohol excessively or using other substances, and hair pulling, and skin picking are just some of the most common negative tactics people use.
However, there are strategies that are effective and healthy, Rancourt said.
Healthy Ways To Cope
Beneficial ways to reduce and manage stress include daily exercise — which can be as simple as walking 20 minutes a day — meditation, reaching out to a friend, seeking professional advice, and doing cognitive behavioral therapy. The latter is a form of treatment that focuses on changing negative thought patterns that contribute to fearful thinking.
“We carry our stress in our bodies, and we feel it,” Rancourt said. “If we can express that stress and anxiety physically, then our bodies are going to feel relieved.”
Trefny then led a guided meditation, with everyone seated at their tables, to show the power of breathing and practicing mindfulness.
“The good news is that we all breathe; the bad news is we don’t always know how to breathe properly when we are feeling heightened anxiety and stress,” Trefny said.
He then asked everyone to close their eyes and place one hand on their chest and one hand on their abdomen. Then he told them to feel their hands move as they breathed in deeply — breathing in through the nose to the count of four, pausing for four counts, then exhaling for four counts.
It has been scientifically proven, Rancourt said, that breathing induces the relaxation response and can positively affect the whole body.
After everyone participated in the breathing exercise, they group also took part in a visualization technique where they envisioned being at the beach to help them feel more peaceful.
After the exercise many people expressed that they felt calmer.
“Everyone holds their stress, anxiety, and tension in their body,” Rancourt said.
To find out where it is being held, she recommends doing a body scan before and after a breathing exercise to see where tension is being held and if it is released after.
Another healthy strategy for managing stress and anxiety is to accept feeling those emotions and understand it the brain overacting in those moments.
It is also a good idea to have the person ask themselves questions, such as “Is this a realistic fear?” and “Does worrying about this change the outcome?”
Using positive self-talk and practicing self care can also be used to restore calm.
“In closing,” Trefny said, “[anxiety and stress] can be part of who we are, but it doesn’t have to define our whole life.”
For those looking to incorporate guided meditation into their lives, Rebecca Rancourt suggests downloading free mediation apps available on smart phones.