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Spotting Signs of Emotional Distress in Older Adults

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Spotting Signs of Emotional Distress in Older Adults


To be in distress is to feel extreme worry, sadness and/or pain. It is naturally felt by people from time to time. Children experience distress for various reasons while growing up. Adults can encounter a load of reasons – family, relationships, households and career – to feel distressed. Seniors also have their fill of issues, even after raising their children, paying off their mortgage, and retirement.

This state of severe anxiety or strain is a part of life for people of all ages, but older folks are more vulnerable than other age groups. The challenges in late life can sometimes become too much to accept. Overwhelmed, it is instinctive that they think of ways to sail through them. After all, anything that challenges the well-being can be a cause of distress. It is a situation when the body feels physical or emotional tension to adjust or react to a trigger.

It is always difficult to work through distressful feelings, even when you are young. As you age, facing stressful situations or emotions can be more challenging. They can affect you differently and they can be potentially overwhelming. Sometimes, what used to be a simple everyday task can cause anguish, especially if you are experiencing physical or medical limitations. The effects can aggravate health conditions, causing more worry in addition to those with which you are struggling.


Age Does Matter

What does age have to do when it comes to distress? The body releases hormones as a natural reaction to stress. These hormones alert the brain and switch on the “flight or fight” mechanism. As the body reacts, the muscles become tense and the pulse rate increases. This is an expected and good reaction to help you with the distressful situation and for the body to protect itself.

As people age, the body undergoes change while the cells age as well. The body’s natural defences against stress gradually deteriorate. The systems in the brain that respond to stressors decline, resulting in it being difficult for it to achieve relaxation after a challenging situation. The aging brain tends to lose its skill at regulating the hormone levels. The older you become, the more you are susceptible to an overload of stress hormones.


Aging with the Negative Effects of Senior Stress

An abundance of stress hormones can especially be taxing on aging brains. Feeling distressful not only causes a person to look and feel older, it can speed up aging. A study reveals that stress hormones can somehow shorten and cut the life of cells. While it takes restorative sleep to flush the stress hormones, the chronic sleep problems in seniors mean it is unlikely for the hormones to be cleared from the brain. It is only a matter of time before the cognitive effects of the distressing feelings exact toll on an older adult’s sensitive health.


It may be difficult to determine how much chronic stress can affect the health of seniors, but undoubtedly there is a correlation. Emotional distress in seniors has been attributed to some negative effects, including:


  • Lower immune system – Being distressed is likely the reason why older adults have a higher risk of age-related illnesses. To be in distress can quickly age the immune system cells and overpower the immune system. Then, it is easier for older adults to be susceptible to illness and for recovery to be a longer process.


  • Heart problems – When in distress, adrenaline floods the body, and the blood pressure and heart rate become elevated.


  • Vision and hearing loss – Blood vessels become constricted due to long-term adrenaline production, leading to a decline in hearing and vision.


  • Digestive issues – To be in distress can cause you to feel sick to the stomach. In response, the activated central nervous system can shut down blood flow, causing the digestive muscles to contract and the secretions vital for digestion to reduce. Serious digestive problems, such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, may result from chronic or severe stress.


  • Dental issues – Distressful situations can induce jaw clenching and teeth grinding. This explains dental issues common in seniors, such as fractures and cavities.


  • Memory problems – Growing older you may also feel a difference in your clarity of thinking. In distressful times, the brain is flooded with stress hormones. As this happens, the midbrain overpowers the front of the brain responsible for concentration, attention and decision-making. The stress hormones contribute to age-related and short-term memory problems, the reason why certain “senior moments” occur during distressful conditions.


  • Unhealthy lifestyle – Emotional distress can compel seniors to engage in unhealthy practices, such as alcohol and substance abuse, overeating, and smoking, in order to find comfort. While these activities bring temporary relief, the damage wrought on the arteries and blood vessels are long-lasting.


Aging brings about age-related challenges that can be worrisome, including physical ailments, cognitive changes, financial concerns, caretaking demands, dwindling social relationships, and a general sense of loss. On top of this is the sedentary lifestyle in late life that can contribute to the premature decline of heart fitness and lung capacity. With this condition, it is vital for senior adults to adequately accommodate the body’s natural stress response. A chronic disease may also render it difficult for the body to bounce back physically from the impact of a distressful situation.


Detecting the Signs

There are various ways distress can interfere with the quality of life. Here are some signs of emotional distress in older adults that should be a cause for concern:


  • Significant change in eating habits, which can either be over-eating or loss of appetite
  • Mood swings exhibited in increased irritability, depression, and utter sadness
  • Memory issues, including increased forgetfulness, lack of concentration, poor judgment, etc.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, such as difficulty falling sleep or frequent awakening at night
  • Frequent illness and an increase in body aches or pains
  • Isolation and withdrawal, such as refusal to socialize or participate in previously enjoyed activities


The fact that emotional distress is a part of life does not mean its consequences are a regular part of aging. Likewise, it does not mean that seniors have to be left on their own measures to shoulder the impact. It is also upon families, friends, caregivers and anyone concerned to be cognizant of the signs if it involves a senior loved one. Precisely because of age, it can be difficult for older adults to alleviate the effects alone.


The Help in the Golden Years

In the past, the stigma in seeking help on a counselor’s couch kept many to continue struggling through a lot of things within their own capabilities. Today, as people are living longer, and the perceived shame in receiving counseling has diminished, many senior adults are recognizing the need to reach out to alleviate the negative effects of emotional distress. The desire to restore and enhance life balance and end emotional distress are among the reasons to seek counseling now.

If you are a senior faced with the negative effects of late-life distress, you do not have to give in just because of your age. You can eagerly embrace geriatric counseling with a caring counselor/therapist independently contracted with Carolina Counseling Services – North Fayetteville Office – Fayetteville, NC. By doing so, you can work with a therapist to help you alleviate the symptoms of emotional distress and reap the many benefits of counseling so your later years can be more enjoyable. By finding the right therapist, you can reap the many benefits of counseling.

Seeking counseling services is worth the effort. It is the best step you can take to reduce or harness emotional distress, preventing disabilities and frequent visits to the hospital. In the end, you can end up feeling younger, healthier, and happier in your golden years. Call now to schedule your first session.

Serving Areas: Carolina Counseling Services

Counties: Cumberland, Bladen and Sampson Counties, NC
Areas: Fayetteville NC, Ft Bragg NC, Pope Field NC, Silver City NC, Linden NC, Bowmore NC, Autryville NC, Bunnlevel NC, Erwin NC, Dundarrach NC, Pineview NC, Rex NC, Lemon Springs NC, Johnsonville NC, Eastover NC, Stedman NC and Wade, NC
Zip Codes: 28311, 28395, 28390, 28356

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Carolina Counseling Services – North Fayetteville Office, Fayetteville, NC

422 McArthur Road, Suite 2
FayettevilleNC 28311

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Fayetteville, NC 28311

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  • Becky Clark, MSW, LCSW

    Specializes in: (Ages 18+) Anxiety, Depression, Individuals, Couples, Geriatrics, Criminal Justice, Stress Management, Loss and Grief related to death, disability, divorce, deployment, “empty nest”, retirement and other major life transitions
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    Location: Fayetteville, NC