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Photo by David Young-Wolff

Managing Stress

Don’t let life changes take the enjoyment out of your retirement.

By Stephenie Overman

Stress affects people at every stage of life—students can’t avoid test stress and college students face debt stress. Meanwhile, educators toil under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and budget cuts. Then there are the frazzled parents and burned-out working folks. But retirees don’t get a pass when it comes to stress.

You may not be rushing off to work every day or overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities, but a new set of challenges has likely entered your life: Financial worries, aging parents, your own health problems, or a sense of isolation can upset even the calmest disposition.

“Retirement changes how you spend your day. It changes relationships,” notes Nora Howley, NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN) manager of programs. Even good changes in your life can cause stress, she adds: “A child’s marriage can be one of the most joyous occasions, but it’s stressful.”

The good news is that there are practical ways to keep stress levels under control with healthy eating, exercise, mental and social stimulation, and by finding new activities and new ways of relaxing.

Stress is a physical response to feeling threatened or upset. When you sense danger—real or imagined—your body's defenses kick into high gear in an automatic “fight-or-flight” reaction.

People respond differently to stress, according to Howley. “You need to understand what your stress response looks like. The biology is the same, but we don’t demonstrate it the same way.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a long list of warning signs of stress: headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain, upset stomach, chest pains, rapid heartbeat, difficulty falling or staying asleep, fatigue, loss of appetite or overeating “comfort foods,” and increased frequency of colds. Other warning signs are a lack of concentration or focus, memory problems, irritability, short temper, and anxiety.

“A lot of times people are holding stuff in,” Howley says. It’s better to ask: “What is it that’s causing these feelings? What can I do to change? Rather than be an ostrich, do what you can do to regain control.”

The APA has a long list of stress-reducing activities: Meditation, exercising, or talking things out with friends or family.  Eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and engage in regular physical activity. Ensure you have a healthy mind and body through activities like yoga, taking a short walk, going to the gym, or playing sports that will enhance both your physical and mental health.

Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is an important way to beat the damage of stress. “When the body feels good it better responds to stress,” Howley says.

A useful eating plan emphasizes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free milk or milk products; includes lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars, according to the American Dietetic Association. In addition, older adults need more calcium and Vitamin D to help maintain bone health, and many people over 50 do not get enough vitamin B12.

But “as we age our appetite may decline. Taste buds may fail,” Howley says, making it more difficult to eat healthy. For help maintaining a stress-reducing diet, she recommends consulting a dietician who specializes in older patients.

When JoAnn Kenner, a retired fifth-grade teacher in Chicago, decided it was time to lose weight, reduce stress, and improve her overall health, she made a drastic change. Kenner became a raw foods enthusiast and is now a raw foods chef.

 “At first, my goal was to be 100 percent raw 100 percent of the time,” Kenner recalls. But that was just a recipe for adding stress because it’s difficult to maintain a completely raw diet “if you have any kind of life,” says Kenner, who travels and serves on boards where “there’s lots of food.” Kenner serves on the board of the Illinois Education Association Retired Council and is coordinator for her neighborhood’s community garden.

At home she still eats only raw food because she believes that cooking destroys critical enzymes, “but when I’m traveling I try to make reasonable choices. It’s more stressful to try to be too picky.”

To learn to prepare foods using mainly a juicer, a food processor, and a high-speed blender, Kenner took “lots of classes. I love taking classes. I belong to support groups. We have potlucks. I give classes sometimes.”

A raw foods diet is very difficult to get started. “You need support to keep you focused on that lifestyle,” she says, but there’s “a whole underground. There are plenty of books. There are festivals. [There’s] ‘Veggie Mania,’ where groups have tables and booths.”

“As they say in yoga—when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. If there’s something you’re interested in, by golly, you will find it.”


Physical activity is one of the best ways you can fight stress. Besides improving physical health, it helps to pump up the production of endorphins, the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that older adults get about two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking every week, and that they do exercises that strengthen all major muscle groups two more days a week.

Activities such as walking, running, yoga, and swimming all can help reduce stress, but Howley advises starting slowly. “Recognize that our bodies do change. Nobody goes from a couch potato to running a marathon in a week. But even adding little bits of activity every day helps.”

When Ray E. Johnson (pictured left), now a retired high school teacher from Portland, Oregon, realized he needed exercise, he decided he might as well choose something fun.

Growing up in northwest Ohio, Johnson had enjoyed skating on ponds. Years later, he found that every weekend he was involved in the Oregon Education Association’s meetings. “I wasn’t doing any physical exercise. I was looking for some physical activity. A friend was going to take up skating, and I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

Originally, his goal was to be skillful enough to skate backwards, Johnson says. He not only accomplished, but also exceeded that goal. “I do jumps. I’m still learning and I’m still getting better.”

From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s Johnson competed at the national level on a synchronized skating team.

In retirement he skates twice a week at Portland rinks. One day a week he concentrates on lessons, and “during the other [skating session] I catch up with friends. It keeps me in shape and I congregate with friends I wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Social Contact

Strong social support is another way to beat stress, says HIN’s Howley, who urges retirees to stay connected and volunteer for “things that matter to you.”

JoAnn Kenner finds social support in her raw food groups and veggie festivals.

Ray Johnson finds that ice skating is not only good exercise but also a good way to catch up with friends.


Photo by David Young-Wolff

For Joani Thompson (pictured left) of Torrance, California, music provides social contact and reduces stress. Thompson felt the benefits of stress reduction after she spent months caring for her son who was seriously injured in a mountain biking accident.

Thompson sings with the four-part a cappella LA South Towns Show Chorus. The chorus is an affiliate of Sweet Adelines International, a worldwide organization of women singers promoting barbershop harmony.

“The singers are from their 20s to mid-80s. They’re from all walks of life, so you’re getting a real cross section.”

Singing “works on all of your senses” according to Thompson. Besides the emotional connections, it provides the mental stimulation of memorizing music and lyrics.

Singing also has physical benefits. “You have to work on your core muscles, your breathing, and your posture. You have to drink water to keep your vocal cords moist,” she says. Plus, the choreographed moves “are a fun way to get exercise.”

There’s also travel, competitions, and a sense of achievement, says Thompson, who recently received a certificate for her performance. “It’s the acknowledgement. People like the recognition that says, ‘I’ve done something and somebody noticed.’ For your first performance you get a gold star to hang on a string around your neck.”

Singing “ has many aspects, not just music. I think that’s why it’s so engaging.”

Today, Thompson stays active and involved in a number of ways besides singing with Sweet Adelines, but she doesn’t try to do as much as she did when she first retired about four years ago.

“Some people get too involved” when they first retire, she says. “I did. I booked something every day… . There’s a lot out there to do. I said yes a lot,” she says.

But with so many things on her plate, Thompson says, she found “I had no sense of free-flowing time, no time to watch the grass.” So “I backed off. I picked days of the week I would have structure and days I would relax and not have structure.”

Thompson has found that, over the years of her retirement, “the things I’m latching onto are things that will engage me,” such as learning new music or teaching tricks to the Norwegian Elkhound she adopted about a month into retirement.

Thompson recently added a new set of skills. After six weeks of training, she became a volunteer hospital clown. “We graduated. We got our red noses”—the clown equivalent of a diploma.

Instead of feeling stressed, “I still feel like I’m growing and learning.”

Preparing for a Big Change

To avoid unnecessary stress when you retire, it helps to prepare ahead of time for the big step, says Nora Howley, manager of programs for NEA’s Health Information Network.

First, Howley recommends identifying your retirement goals. “What do you want to get out of this time? If you’re worried about being bored, think about: What are some things [you] like and want to do?”

And think about how your retirement will affect the other people in your life.

“Talk with your partner, your family, anybody you’re living with about what is going to change in retirement. What if you’re retiring but the other person is still working?” she says. “It’s all about the communication, the expectations. Stress occurs when expectations are out of sync, when communication is lacking.”

Because financial worries can be a big cause of stress for new retirees, Howley suggests taking a money management class or talking with a financial planner before you retire.

Diminished expectations can be another source of stress. “Unfortunately, in this economy, you [may] find you’re not going to be able to do everything you wanted to do,” she says.

 “At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, rather than feeling bad and miserable about things that aren’t there, think about what you can still do. Examine what it was about an activity that was attractive” and find affordable ways to explore it.

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