A version of this essay first appeared in Midlife Cues, a weekly newsletter about intentional living in our middle years. Get it in your inbox; you're going to love it.

I used to get stress hives often. And I used to make a joke and laugh about it.

I totally missed that those hives were my body’s way of trying to catch my attention. Like, “Hey! I’m flooded with cortisol here, yo!”

In my 20s and 30s, I simply expected to be able to take it all in and bounce right back. TBH, I kinda wore it like a badge of honor. “Look at all the stress I’m having to deal with and how well I’m doing!” 🙄

Thankfully, I’ve gotten wiser as I got older and now understand the harmful effects prolonged high cortisol levels have on our bodies.

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream. […] It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes.

That’s not all. Studies have linked stress and its chief hormone-in-charge, cortisol, to abdominal obesity. And that’s really not good. From the American Institute of Stress:

Stress-induced abdominal fat secretes large amounts of inflammatory molecules that contribute to diabetes, insulin resistance, and heart attacks. How many extra pounds you carry around may not be as important as where that excess weight is located.

Midlife = Loads of Stressors

Of course, there are always stressors in life. My teenage nephew can be very articulate about middle school stress!

So, it’s not as if we’re suddenly faced with a deluge of stress in midlife.

But to say that we live in stressful times wouldn’t be breaking news to anyone. Name the stressor — pandemic, wildfires, glacial melting, inflation, widening gap between rich and poor, politics, global issues, social media — we have it all.

Not to mention, we are in that sandwich phase of our lives. Many of us have to care for our kids, our parents, and ourselves! Many are dealing with their version of a midlife crisis (whatever that may look like), their kids’ teenage angst, and their parents’ aging process.

Yes, we have stress in our lives. Midlife isn’t a cakewalk. And we shouldn’t ignore its impact on our health. So, we need to make sure we have tried-and-true stress relief techniques at the ready.

As my guest on the Second Breaks podcast, Shula Ber Levtov, pointed out, there isn’t one cookie-cutter set of techniques. Because what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. So we need to come up with our personal stuff.

There are two aspects to stress resilience, the way I teach it. There’s the in-the-moment stuff, when the s*t hits the fan, what can we draw on? But our capacity to draw on those things is based on our practice of them. So we need a day-to-day practice of the tools that we want to use. — Shula Ber Levtov

BOTTOM LINE

It’s easy to miss the impact that stress has on our bodies. We often blame illness or some other reason for what we feel when really, stress is the main culprit.

It may have been easy in our 20s and 30s to bounce back. But as we get older, we must develop our personal set of stress relief techniques.

After all, a healthy body and mind is the foundation of aging well.


Suggested Additional Reading

  • “Sleep and rest are not the same, although many of us incorrectly confuse the two. We go through life thinking we’ve rested because we have gotten enough sleep — but in reality, we are missing out on the other types of rest we desperately need. The result is a culture of high-achieving, high-producing, chronically tired, and chronically burned-out individuals. We’re suffering from a rest deficit because we don’t understand the true power of rest.” The 7 types of rest that every person needs.
  • “Compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted. Close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. […] What’s more, there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: The more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel. Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Exhaustion. It’s Also About Loneliness
  • The first step to managing stress is to recognize the symptoms. Stress affects our bodies, our thoughts and feelings, and our behavior. “Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.” Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior

Mull It Over

“It’s not about never having stress, never being activated. It’s about maintaining flow.” — Shulamit Ber Levtov

ABOUT LOU BLASER

A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Midlife Cues and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on exploring how to navigate, thrive, and turn midlife into the best phase in our life.

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