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Be kind to yourself

The key to coping with stress in old age
August 6, 2019
By Heather Herriot

Be kind to yourself Photo by Huyen Nguyen on Unsplash

We’re all going to get older — but how do we cope with the types of stress that occur in old age?

As we get older there are many stressors unique to this period of life, and one common feature is that they are often uncontrollable. Uncontrollable stressors are the types of stressors most likely to trigger a biological response in our body, such as increasing the hormone cortisol1. Therefore, learning how to cope with the uncontrollable stressors that occur in aging life is not only going to improve ones’ mental health, but their physical health too.

What are some of the stressors that can affect us as we age?

Is there something from your past that you wish you did? Or wish you never did?

In our research up to 82 per cent of older adults report a major life regret2. These may centre on major life decisions such as not going to university, marriage or the choice to have or not have children. Some of us will dwell on these regrets more than others, but thinking about them can make us feel sad, depressed or angry.

Another common source of stress is the diagnosis and management of chronic disease. Indeed, more than 80 per cent of adults older than 71 in Canada have at least one chronic health condition3. These can include conditions like diabetes, arthritis, hypertension and many more.

As we get older these chronic conditions, and a general decline in functioning, can make it harder to perform daily tasks, like going for groceries or doing the dishes. When we can no longer do a daily task, like taking out the garbage, we can feel shame and other negative emotions when we can no longer function as well as we used to.

Is self-compassion the key to coping with the stress of old age?

I’ve spent much of my PhD research looking at whether self-compassion can help older adults cope with the stress of old age. For example, I recently published a study that looked at more than 250 older adults living in Montreal who had stress related to aging, such as more health problems, life regrets or limitations in their daily activities4.

We found that if these stressed out older adults were more self-compassionate, they had lower levels of the hormone related to stress, cortisol. Further, other researchers have shown self-compassionate older adults have more positive and less negative emotions. This means self-compassion could help both one’s mental and physical health while aging.

What does it mean to be self-compassionate?

Think about a time your friend or loved one went through a stressful period, what did you say to them? Most of us would say something kind, caring and supportive, right? To be self-compassionate is to treat ourselves in the same manner we treat those we care about5.

Instead of being critical and judgemental when we fail at something, we need to focus on being kinder to ourselves. This can include being able to recognize and accept the experience of stress or failure, without ruminating on the problem and beating ourselves up over it.

Stress can also make us feel very alone, but another important part of being self-compassionate is recognizing that the stress that occurs in old age is truly a common human experience. Many other people your age are likely having the same regrets or health problems you are.

Why is self-compassion important as we age?

When we’re young, much of the stress in our life is somewhat controllable and is therefore best dealt with by active problem solving — that work deadline is going to be best managed by planning and working on tasks.

But as we advance in age, many of the stressors in our lives become uncontrollable. Health problems arise that make life more difficult — like pain from arthritis — or we may no longer be as physical mobile as we once were or or we may feel distress from something we regret in our past.

These uncontrollable experiences can be frustrating or make us upset that we are not as healthy or can no longer function as well as we used to.

Because much of the stress in older adulthood is uncontrollable, our coping strategies need to shift accordingly6. For example, when we reach a point when we are unable to bathe ourselves, we may feel sad, shameful or embarrassed. Unfortunately, no amount of trying to change this is going to fix the fact that our mobility has declined. So instead, we need to focus on coping strategies, like self-compassion, that help us regulate these emotions instead.

Instead of being critical and judgmental when we fail at something, like attempting to bathe ourselves, we need to focus on being kinder to ourselves. This can include being able to recognize and accept what has happened, without ruminating on the problem and beating ourselves up over it.

Another important part of being self-compassionate is recognizing that many other people your age are having the same issues you are. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re not alone and many others just like you experience the same types of stress.

Many of us may feel anxious about getting older and having to deal with reduced mobility and health problems, but by harnessing the powers of self-compassion we can age in a happier and healthier manner. Indeed, research has shown that self-compassion may change the way older adults think about aging that promotes better coping7.

While being self-compassionate is beneficial at any age, it’s clear that being self-compassionate may be particularly important for coping with the types of stress that occur in old age. We may be familiar with the ‘golden rule,’ which is that we must treat others how we want them to treat us.

However, I think it’s time we develop a new rule for emphasizing the importance of treating ourselves in the kind and caring way we all deserve!


1. Miller, G. E., Chen, E., & Zhou, E. S. (2007). If it goes up, must it come down? Chronic stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis in humans. Psychological Bulletin133 (1), 25.

2. Wrosch, C., Bauer, I., & Scheier, M. F. (2005). Regret and quality of life across the adult life span: The influence of disengagement and available future goals. Psychology & Aging20(4), 657.

3. Research on Health and Aging. Statistics Canada. Published July 28, 2016. Retrieved from:

4. Herriot, H., Wrosch, C., & Gouin, J. P. (2018). Self-compassion, chronic age-related stressors, and diurnal cortisol secretion in older adulthood. Journal of Behavioral Medicine41 (6), 850-862.

5. Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self & Identity(2), 85-101.

6. Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2019). Agency and motivation in adulthood and old age. Annual Review of Psychology70, 191-217.

7. Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2013). Self-compassionate responses to aging. The Gerontologist54 (2), 190-200.

About the author

Heather Herriot is a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Concordia University. She received her Bachelor's with Honours in Psychology from UBC in Vancouver. Heather’s research focuses on the intersection of health, personality, and developmental psychology. She uses longitudinal research to explore how self-compassion can help older adults cope with stress to prevent declines in biomarkers of stress and health, such as cortisol and inflammation.

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