Stress - by Dr David Delvin

Some folk think that it's only young people who get stress. They are wrong!

In fact, I see an awful lot of retired people who are suffering from stress. Obviously, in most cases they no longer have job worries. But they're subject to all sorts of other anxieties and cares. So in this article, I'm going to try and show you how to cope with the stresses and strains of this particular period of life.


But first, what is stress? We hear an awful lot about it, but what actually is it?

Stress really means 'overloading' of the human brain - overloading with too many demands, too many worries, frequently too much noise, and often too much work. You see, the brain is only capable of tolerating a certain amount of 'input' from the outside world. Give it too many stimuli, and it starts showing signs of trouble!

A good parallel is this: if you keep jabbing the buttons on any machine (whether it's a car or a computer or a washing machine), you're liable to 'confuse' it and make it malfunction. That's what happens when you overload the brain. And that's stress!


Factors, which can contribute to stress, include:

  • People constantly coming to you with problems - till your brain can't take any more.
  • Worries about your children and grandchildren, you or your partners health, money/finances.
  • Concern about the state of the world (common in older folk!), the weather (common in the recent floods and gales), your house / flat / accommodation etc.
  • Not enough rest, sleep and/or pleasant, restful relaxation
  • Physical illness (you're much more likely to be stressed if you're 'below par')

You might like to check through the above list and see which of them may apply to YOU.


So, the symptoms of stress are those of 'brain overload'. What are they? In people of retirement age, they often include:

  • Tetchiness and irritability
  • Bouts of weeping
  • Feelings of not being able to cope
  • Panic attacks - in which the person often thinks she/he is dying
  • Vague symptoms which the doctor doesn't really seem to be able to explain
  • Multiple symptoms - when a person goes to the GP with 27 different complaints, there's almost certain to be a background of stress!
  • Palpitations (that is, awareness of the heart beating)
  • Aches and pains which seem disproportionately distressing


So is stress the same thing as depression? No - although stress often leads to depression. Features of depressive illness include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Waking up very early in the morning
  • Feelings of lack of personal worth
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Feelings of great tiredness and misery - which vary during the course of the day

Depression is very common in older folk, and it can be serious. So if YOU have any of the above symptoms, please have a chat with your doctor as soon as possible.


Now, how can you beat stress? Unfortunately, a lot of people want their GPs to give them an 'anti-stress pill' which will magically put everything right! Alas, there is no such thing.

Admittedly, pills can sometimes help a bit - particularly in people who have a lot of anxiety or who have depressive symptoms (see above). But in general, if you have problems with stress, you need to look at what's causing them - and do something to put things right.

You may say 'That's impossible' - but in fact that is rarely the case. Most stresses can be alleviated if you sit down with somebody sensible, and try and work out how to put them right. Very often, it's a good idea to go to a Counsellor (or even a psycho-therapist), and get her/his help in developing strategies to cope with stresses.

For example, Mrs Mary Simms (not her real name) was a 61 year old grandmother and retired businesswoman. She'd always looked forward to her retirement, but found that instead of being peaceful, it was plagued by stress!  In particular:

  • Her children insisted on 'dumping' the grandchildren on her with no warning at all
  • Her elderly mother insisted on dropping in every day and criticising the house
  • When all that wasn't going on, her husband insisted on dragging her off to bits of Britain which he'd always wanted to visit - even though she found travelling stressful and tiring

So Mary developed various stress symptoms. She went to her GP asking for 'anti-stress' medication, but fortunately he directed her to the practice counsellor instead. The counsellor pointed out to Mary that all her stress was actually caused by other people!

What has to be done? The counsellor helped her to work out a plan - a plan in which she put her foot down, and insisted on her own time, and her own space. She informed the rest of the family that from now on:

  • She would look after grandchildren on ONE day a week only
  • Similarly, she would have her mother round on just ONE day a week
  • She would make a trip every TWO MONTHS with her husband - but not more often than that.

Initially, this plan provoked a bit of offence among her family - as is often the case! But Mary told them firmly that she was acting on strong advice from her doctor's surgery. And when they saw that her 'new regime' rapidly made her far, far less stressed out, they gradually came to terms with it.

So Mary's stress was cured - WITHOUT pills!

Q. I am driven nearly made by the noise from my neighbour's house. The sheer loudness of it is causing me immense stress. Is there anything I could take to alleviate this?

A. Well, there's far more noise these days than there used to be - and it can be VERY stressful, particularly for older people. Alas, there are no pills, which will make this racket more tolerable - and I can't prescribe tablets to make you deaf! As a temporary measure, you should most certainly get EAR PLUGS from your local chemist.

Your Citizen's Advice Bureau will advise about trying to achieve some sort of mediation / negotiation with your neighbour. Alternatively, you could take anti-noise proceedings against him. But this process will probably be difficult - and even more STRESSFUL for you.

In the long run, I think you should take a wider view of the problem and seriously consider alleviating your stress by either a) installing double glazing, or (b) moving away if possible.

Q. Since he retired, my husband has been really irritating! This is no joke: I can't stand the stress of having him at home. He complains about everything, dislikes my cooking, picks fights with me - and demands sex at times of the day when I am busy.

All this stress has given me twitches - and headaches! I have seen my doctor, but she says there's nothing she can do.

A. It's clear that it was RETIREMENT that has caused all this stress - because it's brought the two of you together at home. My advice would be to seek some help from a counsellor, who could help both of you reach some sort of compromise about your domestic arrangements. If things do not improve, I think that you should seriously consider seeing Relate (or the equivalent Scottish organisation). Otherwise, you could end up being in a retirement-induced divorce.

Q. My GP says that my palpitations are 'just due to stress'. But how can this be the case? Admittedly, I've had a lot of stress since I was made redundant. But I'm sure there must be something wrong with my heart.

A. Most people who have palpitations think that there is something wrong with their hearts. And sometimes they're right. But in many cases, the sensation of palpitations is just Nature's way of reacting to stress. What is palpitation? The word simply means that you can feel your own heart beating.

In some circumstances, that is normal - for instance, after stiff exercise. And in many people who are stressed, the heart beats a bit more strongly and a bit faster - so that they can feel it.

I assume that your GP has examined you and done any necessary tests. If that's the case, you can be reassured that what he says about stress being the cause of your symptom is likely to be right. Please do your best to try and reduce your levels of stress - for instance, by going in for yoga, meditation, or relaxation classes.

© Dr D Delvin / Retirement Matters Ltd