New Research Reveals How Older Adults Can Improve Their Stress Management

Researchers Giselle Ferguson and Stacey Scott explain the interplay of personality traits with resilience and daily stressors in older adults.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 14, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that, for older adults, feeling more outgoing on a particular day led to better social interactions and less stress. Contrastingly, feeling more worried or sensitive was found to increase stress and negatively affect socializing.

I recently spoke to lead author Giselle Ferguson and co-author Stacey Scott of the Department of Social and Health Psychology, Stony Brooks University, to discuss the influence of personality traits on everyday stress levels and resilience in older adults. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired your research on personality traits and daily stress experiences in older adults?

Lots of psychological literature exists on how stress and personality interact in younger people, but as researchers of aging and older adulthood, we are always seeking to explore how psychological processes unfold in the later stages of life, especially since this age group is understudied across most subfields of psychology.

The literature regarding stress and personality is the same; many past studies on this topic do not include older adults in their samples. However, including older adults in this literature is especially important when we consider the following pieces of information.

Firstly, as the Baby Boomer generation ages into older adulthood, and as healthcare advances enable longer lifespans than ever, older adults will compose a larger and larger portion of our society—both in the United States and around the world—and building a deeper knowledge of psychology in this prominent age group will enable better efforts towards their wellbeing.

Secondly, regarding personality's role in stress processes, although most older adults do not have any kind of dementia, individuals who do develop cognitive decline and dementia can experience personality changes, which may, in turn, change how their stress processes unfold.

In addition, older adults certainly still experience stressful events—whether it is a health concern flaring up, an argument with a loved one, or simply being stuck in traffic—so these psychological processes are just as integral to the lives of older people.

So, we set out to explore how those stressful events, as well as social interactions, which may serve to foster resilience to stress, were related to older adults' personalities daily.

How do extraversion and neuroticism affect older adults' daily stress and social interactions?

While many prior studies have documented how extraversion and neuroticism shape experiences of stress and social interactions when measured at a single point in time, our study took daily measurements of how extraverted or neurotic an individual was within each specific day.

(Example questions: "Looking back across the day, how well do the following describe you today?" Extraversion: e.g., "You were outgoing, sociable." Neuroticism: e.g., "You were moody.").

Our results showed that even the tiny day-to-day fluctuations in those extraversion and neuroticism scores were associated with experiences of stress and social interactions within the same day.

For example, when an individual was higher in neuroticism, they also experienced more stressful events and fewer social interactions throughout the day than when they were lower in neuroticism.

Conversely, when an individual was higher in extraversion, they experienced fewer stressful events and more social interactions throughout the day. Thus, even daily, these personality traits play out in an observable way in older adults' experiences.

What are some everyday stressors experienced by older adults, and how can they build resilience against these challenges?

Some types of everyday stressors may be more common in older adulthood, such as physical or cognitive health issues in oneself or in a spouse, mobility difficulties, or concerns related to retirement.

However, many of the everyday stressors older adults encounter are not any different than those experienced by adults of other ages: arguments, issues at work or school, financial hardships, or even just mundane events like running late or missing a train.

As we mentioned above, building resilience against stress can involve learning about and fostering healthy coping resources and strategies, including a robust social support network that can be relied on.

Other coping strategies may have a different focus, such as solving the problem that caused the stressor, soothing the negative emotions that the stressor created, or reframing the stressful event to view it as less upsetting. It is important to note, though, that different types of stressful events may be best addressed with varying types of coping strategies.

Thus, a resilient person of any age will likely have a range of coping resources that they use in a tailored way to address the specific stressful situations that they encounter and buffer against their negative impacts.

Prior studies have shown that receiving education in various coping strategies and their appropriateness for dealing with various types of stressors can help individuals become more emotionally resilient to stress over time.

What advice do you offer older adults to manage stress and foster social connections in their daily lives?

Interestingly, the broader literature suggests that whether an event is stressful can be different from person to person or even can be seen by the same person as stressful in one instance and not stressful in another.

A large part of determining whether an event is stressful, no matter our age, is not the event itself but rather whether we see ourselves as having adequate resources available to cope with it.

Consequently, a large part of managing stress is developing vital coping resources that can be relied on. One of the most important of these coping resources in an individual's life can be the availability of social connections to support them. In fact, past correlational research has shown that individuals who feel that they have close relationships with people who can help them also tend to have fewer depressive symptoms, a greater sense of life satisfaction, and even longer lives.

This social support can come in many forms, including concrete actions—such as helping to take care of pets at home during an unexpected hospital stay—or through more informational and emotional support, like offering expertise, advice, or a shoulder to cry on.

Across the board, at any time of the lifespan, loneliness has negative impacts on physical health and mental wellbeing, and for older adulthood specifically, the National Institute on Aging developed an outreach toolkit with information and resources to help reduce loneliness.

In the same way, fostering social connections and having a solid social support network of people to turn to in times of stress can be a powerful buffer against negative impacts when stressful events inevitably occur—this is the case in older adulthood as well. So, managing stress and fostering social connections often go hand in hand!

Building a solid support network can both mean meeting new people and fostering new friendships, such as by joining a hobby group or chatting with neighbors, as well as strengthening the existing bonds with close others, and turning to them for support in times of stress.

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