Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the tenth edition of Exploring Retirement! This month we are looking at stress. You might think that being retired you would not experience stress but in fact many people find retirement itself a stressful experience!. Also, since high levels of stress have been linked to many illnesses and to shorter life expectancy, it is appropriate that we consider how best to cope with this all too common condition that has become an accepted part of modern life. To this end our featured activity this month is the Relaxation Response. Regular practice eliciting this response has been shown to be very helpful in allowing our bodies to recover from the effects of stress by natural means.

Guest contributor, Michael McSorley has chosen literature and especially poetry as his favourite form of relaxation. Michael had the privilege of meeting the Nobel Laureate, the late Seamus Heaney and this month he reflects on Heaney's work and legacy.

Feedback from readers is welcomed, why not send us your thoughts on how you like to relax and enjoy your retirement? Write to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.


Stress is the perception of a threat to one's physical or psychological well-being and the perception that one is unable to cope with that threat. Our bodies evolved to deal with short-term periods of acute physical stress but the way we live now we are often subject to chronic psychological stress that originates in our own mind. We ruminate about the past and worry about the future. Hence we often find that our bodies are subjected to a long-term state of heightened alertness. In my classes I often ask people to try lowering their shoulders and they invariably are able to, indicating that their shoulders were hunched up from a level of stress they weren't even aware of.

Some stress is inevitable and may even result from good things happening. I have a daughter getting married in the Spring. My wife and I are delighted, but of course the "big day" is bound to be a little stressful, as we all want everything to go well. A common assumption is that this kind of "good stress" is fine, but unfortunately our bodies can't tell the difference between good and bad and the effects of stress can be cumulative.

The Holmes - Rahe Scale of life stressors was an early attempt to rank the most stressful life events we might experience. Here are some of them -

  1. Death of a spouse . . . . 100
  2. Divorce. . . . 73
  3. Marital Separation. . . . 65
  4. Imprisonment. . . . 63
  5. Death of a close family member. . . . .63
  6. Personal injury or illness. . . . 53
  7. Marriage . . . . 50
  8. Dismissal from work. . . . 47
  9. Marital reconciliation . . . . .45
  10. Retirement. . . . 43

The number following each stressor was meant to represent the relative impact. Of course this varies from individual to individual but it is interesting to see retirement alongside such life changing events as bereavement and loss of ones livelihood.

Professor Suzanne Segerstrom (University of Kentucky) performed an analysis of 293 separate studies of stress, involving 18,941 individuals. She concluded that stress has a deleterious effect on the immune system. While short-term stress seems to enhance our immune response, long-term stress suppresses it. As we grow older we become more susceptible to the effects of stress on our immune system. Hence it becomes more important to find ways of coping with this condition when we are retired.

Signs that we may be suffering from chronic stress include -

To avoid the negative effect of long term stress we need to build time into our lives when we can relax and allow our bodies to remove the effects of stress. Plan to deliberately alternate challenging activities with opportunities for calm and relaxation.

Featured Activity

The Relaxation Response

You are probably familiar with the "fight or flight response" which evolved over millions of years to help keep us safe when danger threatened. The instant we sense danger, our brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release powerful hormones such as adrenaline into the bloodstream to prepare our bodies to respond vigorously. In our modern world the nature of the threats we face is such that this response is often inappropriate. Fortunately our bodies have also evolved a mechanism to calm down this inappropriate reaction. This mechanism was first identified and investigated by Herbert Benson, an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, in the late 1960s, in the same room in which Harvard Medical School's Walter Cannon had performed fight-or-flight experiments 50 years earlier, Dr. Benson, found that there was a counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response. He defined this opposite state as "the relaxation response".

Dr Benson concluded that many of the approaches used to create a feeling of calm such as various forms of meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and guided imagery, were all using very similar techniques. Over many years of research he was able to distil these down to a short list. His suggestions for eliciting the relaxation response are as follows -

  • Step 1: Pick a focus word, phrase, image or short prayer. Or focus only on your breathing during the exercise.
  • Step 2: Find a quiet place and sit calmly in a comfortable position.
  • Step 3: Close your eyes.
  • Step 4: Progressively relax all your muscles.
  • Step 5: Breathe slowly and naturally. As you exhale, repeat or picture silently your focus word or phrase, or simply focus on your breathing rhythm.
  • Step 6: Assume a passive attitude. When other thoughts intrude, simply think, "Oh well", and return to your focus.
  • Step 7: Continue with this exercise for an average of 12 to 15 minutes.
  • Step 8: Practice this technique at least once daily.

Dr Bensons research has shown that learning to elicit the relaxation response can be of real benefit in helping to alleviate a wide range of medical conditions including angina, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea and a wide range of pain (including backache, headaches and migraine). Dr Benson does not advocate the use of the relaxation response as a stand alone treatment for any of these conditions but as an adjunct to conventional medicine under the supervision of a medically qualified physician.

Dr Benson also claims that the relaxation response can improve the energy efficiency of our body cells, increase insulin production, protect our DNA by preventing telomere breakdown and reduce the chronic inflammation in the body associated with heart disease.

To obtain the maximum benefit from the relaxation response, it needs to be practised regularly and ideally should become a part of everyones normal daily routine. Also, with practice, you can learn to initiate the relaxation response when needed, to reduce your experience of pain for example. I have tried this while sitting in the dentist's chair and I am convinced that it really does help!

How you choose to invoke the relaxation response is a matter of personal choice. Some people may like to try various forms of meditation, others may prefer a more physical approach like yoga or tai chi. Those with religious faith may choose prayer or chanting sacred texts. The important point from Dr Benson's studies is that these can all work.

Further Reading

The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson (Published by HarperCollins)

Dr Benson on Video

This video clip lasts about 40 minutes and features a talk by Dr Benson in which he describes how modern medicine has come to rely on drugs and high tech surgery. He describes how he developed his own research interest in mind body interactions and refers to some of the research studies on the benefits of the relaxation response, including his most recent work on how the mind can influence genetic expression.