Getting Older and Chilling Out

Getting Older and Chilling Out

We have long known that stress, including the ordinary, daily stress of work deadlines or arguments with a spouse, can adversely affect psychological and physical well-being. Stress is implicated in many conditions, ranging from insomnia to cardiovascular disease, and most American adults report high levels of stress in their lives. A group of researchers set out to discover whether people at different ages and life stages experience different degrees of stress. Their methodology separated the stress events that happened from their emotional responses to those events.

Over a 20-year period, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, California State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of California queried a very large sample of nearly 3,000 subjects about the number of ordinary daily stressors they experienced and their emotional reactions to them. Subjects ranged in age from their 20s to their 90s.

Greatest Stress in Those Under 30

It is not surprising to learn that those under age 30 reported the greatest amount of stress—both greatest numbers of stressors and the most intense stress reactivity. Young adulthood is typically a time of many life changes, even turmoil. It is a time of making choices and decisions with limited knowledge of oneself and limited experience of the world.

Happily, the stress profile improves with age. Over time there is a decline in both the number of daily stressors reported and a decline in stress reactivity. It seems that adults gain perspective and/or perhaps learn better emotional regulation—regardless of the reasons, the picture of stress improves with age.

Continuing Improvement Into Old Age

And the improvement continues into old age. The proportion of stressor days reported by older adults are 25 percent fewer than middle-aged adults and 38 percent fewer than the youngest adults. Some of that change may reflect the benefits of retirement and of the post–child-rearing stage of family life. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the reduced level of stress reactivity reached in midlife (mid-50s) continues into old age.

We can speculate about why improvement in stress events and reactivity occurs with age: Perhaps one achieves a better match between challenge and ability, or perhaps there is a developmental increase in the constellation of self-acceptance, insight, and emotional regulation that some call wisdom.

We’ll need more research to determine the reasons why, but, for the moment, the take-away message of this research is that we can look forward to becoming more mellow, more chill, and less stressed as we grow older.

Something to look forward to.

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