A 6-year-old feels stress on the first day of kindergarten. A 12-year-old feels stress at a soccer playoff game. And so it continues on into young adulthood, middle age and life’s further reaches. The triggers of stress may change over the years, but the phenomenon of a stressful moment — that sudden eruption of strong physiological and emotional reactions we have all felt — mostly remains the same.
The difference is how it affects us.
With age, our bodies react more intensely to stress; its effects on our health can become more toxic; and, once triggered, our bodies take longer to return to baseline. And while, as older adults, we may have fewer moments of acute stress — those onetime episodes of tension, confrontation or fright that are an inevitable part of modern life — we are more apt to be faced with chronic challenges like illness, financial insecurity or caregiving situations that can repeatedly trigger stressful reactions over the span of years, even decades.
But there is good news too: While age may erode our natural defenses against stress, it also endows us with powerful new weapons with which to fight back.
Why we stress less
Polls consistently show that as an older adult, you are simply better at handling stressful situations than your younger cohorts. Case in point: a little radar blip known as COVID-19. Ninety-four percent of Americans who have been killed by the disease were 50 and older. Adults 65 and older make up only 17 percent of the U.S. population but account for 76 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
Yet a 2021 University of Michigan poll, conducted in the throes of the pandemic, found that 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 80 rated their mental health as “excellent” or “very good.” And a 2020 AARP poll found that while 38 percent of those in their 40s reported being “highly stressed,” older respondents seemed to have more resiliency: Thirty-three percent of those in their 50s, 18 percent of people in their 60s and just 13 percent of adults 70 and older said they had high stress levels.
What’s going on here? Simply put, the older we are, the more adept we are at navigating away from potential stressful situations, says Susan Charles, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.
“When, for example, we bring older and younger people into the lab,” says Charles, “and put them in an uncomfortable situation, older people are much more likely to say it’s not as stressful. Young people are much more reactive.”
Studies have shown that compared with younger adults, older adults are much more likely to credit positive emotional stimuli and discredit negative emotional stimuli. One study has shown that older adults are 50 percent more likely to use proactive coping techniques learned during their long lives in order to prevent stressful situations from developing in the first place — and are better able to reach a compromise with life’s demands.
These skills, Charles says, stem from three assets that older people have in greater abundance than younger people: life experience, self-knowledge and time perspective.
“Older people are more likely to choose to disengage from minor problems, understanding that it’s really not worth it to get upset about the small stuff. If an older adult is talking politics with someone they don’t necessarily agree with, for example, they’re much better than younger people at changing the topic,” she adds.