Exploring Retirement

"The institutions and instruments which have been created to meet the problem of ageing, are in no position to provide us with a policy for that great majority of retired people who present no problem at all"

Peter Laslett: A Fresh Map of Life.

Welcome to the November 2016 edition of Exploring Retirement, the on-line magazine created for those of us who regard ourselves as, in Laslett's words, "no problem at all". Each month we provide articles on well-being in retirement and also feature an activity to explore. This month we are continuing to consider issues connected with health and well-being. Most people associate stress with work rather than retirement but, as we shall show, our experience of stress is very much dependent on our individual temperament.

Exploring Retirement is written by and for retired people, to assist active retirees make the most of their additional years of good health. No one knows it all, we are all explorers in this new land. We trust that you will continue to enjoy our monthly publication and please tell your friends about the site. If you are interested in writing for Exploring Retirement, please contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.For ideas to write about, have a glance at the July 2014 issue of Exploring Retirement, available by clicking on "Past Issues" in the navigation bar on the left of this page. These are only suggestions, please contact us if you have a different topic you would like to share your thoughts on.

Writing team

We have three regular contributors on our writing team. Here they are with a brief note explaining their principal areas of interest:

John Copelton, EditorDr John Copelton - well-being in retirementMichael McSorley, contributorMichael McSorley - lively comment on sport and cultureJeannette Lewis, contributorJeannette Lewis - inspiring ideas on retirement living

Stress in retirement

At first glance talking about stress in retirement seems an oxymoron. Surely retirement is the one time on our lives when we can hope to be free from stress? In 1967 two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, decided to study whether or not stress contributes to illness. They created a list of stressful events and examined the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients as a way to determine whether their experience of these stressful events correlated with subsequent ill health. They did indeed find a positive relationship between the amount of stress and subsequent health problems. Death of a spouse turned out to be the most stressful event most people experience, and was given a weighting of 100. On the same scale retirement from work received a rating of 45!

It is not hard to see why the retirement transition should be associated with higher levels of stress. There is the loss of a familiar role together with a possible loss of status. Leaving work for the last time can also mean leaving friends we have known for years. Just at the time when we need to develop new relationships, retirement may also bring a drop in income with a resultant curtailment of social activities. Some people also have to take early retirement due to health problems, with possible restrictions on leading an active lifestyle in retirement. All in all it can be quite a challenge!

A good working definition of psychological stress is "the perception of a threat to one's physical or psychological well-being, coupled with the perception that one is unable to cope with that threat." We can see from this that stress is subjective, not everyone reacts to stressful events in the same way. It is important to remember that retirement is a major life transition which people usually have to cope with without any help or guidance. Most people manage perfectly well but for some it can take time to adapt. Strangely enough it is not necessarily the people who have a busy retirement who are most likely to suffer from stress. Often it is those who were too busy with work to develop many outside interests, who have the biggest problem adjusting.

When we experience stress, a number of key organs in the limbic region of our brain (the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus) interact, causing chemical messengers to be despatched throughout the body. These cause our heart to beat faster, while the blood vessels in our stomach constrict, producing a consequent increase in blood pressure. The overall sensation we feel is of heightened alertness: a readiness to flee or fight.

Once our perception of a threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play, shutting down the production of stress chemicals in the body. All of this is completely natural and is necessary for us to be able to deal with short term emergencies. However a problem arises when we experience prolonged or chronic stress. This can result in an elevated heart rate leading to high blood pressure with the accompanying dangers of heart attack and stroke.

Coping with stress

As you will have seen, stress is first of all perceived by the brain which then causes changes in the body. Knowing this gives us two ways to deal with stressful situations:

  1. Change your thinking. Since stress originates in our perception, then how we perceive stressful events is a good place to start. Try the following techniques:

    • Make time in your day to experience quietness. Try meditation or yoga.
    • Practice slow, deep breathing
    • Keep a journal to record your thoughts. Writing about your worries can help you to see things more clearly and develop a healthy perspective.
    • Try listening to music or relaxing sounds like wind chimes or waves on the sea shore.
    • Go for a walk outdoors in a park or somewhere where you can be surrounded by nature.

  2. Exercise. Our bodies response to stress is meant to prepare us for action, so an effective means of countering chronic stress is to engage in regular exercise. Even something as simple as taking a good brisk walk every day can help to dissipate the physical effects of stress.

Meditation Practice

Here is a simple meditation practice for you to try:

Find a quiet place where you can be alone for twenty minutes. Sit comfortably in an upright posture and relax your shoulders. Close your eyes gently and imagine you are staring at a faraway hilltop. Listen carefully for any sounds in the room such as a ticking clock, or sounds in the distance such as the hum of traffic. Bring your attention to your breathing. To help you stay focussed on your breath I suggest you count each breath, up to ten. When you reach ten, start again. As the meditation continues you can cycle through these stages over and over, becoming progressively more relaxed. When you have completed twenty minutes like this, open your eyes and have a gentle stretch. Your problems will not have gone away, but how you feel about them will have become calmer and less anxious.

How does this work? If you stop to think about it, the process I have just outlined involves all of our five senses - touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. As we pay attention to each sense in turn we notice no signal, nothing to report. At the same time we deliberately shut down worrying thoughts by focussing exclusively on our breathing. When thoughts intrude, as they surely will, we simply return our attention to the regular pattern of our breath. Our limbic system is deprived of any kind of stimulus and slowly begins to calm down. You cannot change your busy life, with all it's worries and cares, but you can take control over your emotional response. Practised regularly, meditation exercises of this kind have been shown, not only to induce a sense of calm, but in the long term to effect a physical reduction in the size of the amygdala, the organ in the brain associated with our feelings of fear and anxiety.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the first Stress Reduction Clinic in America, has some wise words to say about taking control of our thoughts. Speaking about meditation, he says "meditation is easy, it's doing it that's difficult"! You will experience no benefits from reading about meditation, you have to practice it on a daily basis. This requires discipline but it is worthwhile.

Featured Activity - Friends in Retirement

Having been writing this month about stress and the importance of making new social connections in retirement, it seems appropriate to look at one of the many initiatives that are out there to help you readjust. Numerous studies have led to wide-ranging conclusions about the importance of social relationships to individual good health. Researchers have consistently identified ties between strong social networks and lower levels of stress. So important are social relationships that researchers now refer to "social capital" as an asset class that we need to build throughout our lives. When we retire we may well lose some of our social capital, as we leave behind friends and colleagues in the workplace. It is important to seek out new sources of friendship with likeminded people.

Friends in Retirement is based in Solihull and has been running for over 35 years!. Solihull is a large town in the West Midlands of England with a population of 206,700, located 8 miles southeast of Birmingham city centre. Friends in Retirement state that their main goal is "to provide the encouragement and platform to build long lasting friendship amongst our members".

Friends In Retirement is the biggest local recreational club in Solihull aimed at the retired. With over 1450 memberships they offer many recreational activities to get involved in. The club activities are organised in nineteen local venues so there is always something on nearby. The 57 activities on offer range from art to "ambling" (similar to rambling but with an alehouse along the way). As well as classes they also arrange outings and holidays. Lunch time dances are popular and there are regular coffee mornings with the emphasis on social get togethers.

Friends in Retirement is a registered charity and this is reflected in their charges. - £2.50 for annual membership and then £1.50 to participate in an activity..

To learn more, click here.


Michael McSorley

Michael has been on his travels again, this time to sunny Spain. He has entitled his article "Homage to Barcelona" which says it all! Click here to read how he got on.

Jeanette Lewis

Jeanette has been laid up with a bout of pneumonia. It is a tribute to her character that she still managed to file her monthly article. I really appreciate what both she and Michael contribute to the magazine.

This month Jeanette has adapted the idea of the annual "Appraisal", so familiar from a work setting, to retirement. It's a mark of a creative mind to find new uses for old ideas! Click here to read Jeanette's article.


Reflections is intended to showcase short pieces of poetry or prose that reflect on our life experience. This month features a poem by my late friend and colleague, Philip Clarke. Phil was quite spiritual person and here he shares his thoughts on the impact of the great cathedrals. To read his poem "Cathedrals", click here.

If you write poetry and would like to see your work published on our website, please contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk. We would love to hear from you.