Have you ever been so stressed and worried that you forgot an important doctor’s appointment or what you were planning to make for dinner? Imagine if you worried yourself so much for so long that your forgetfulness became dementia.
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It’s a distinct possibility, especially for women, says psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, Director of Behavioral Medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for MS.
“Worry is a part of daily life, and I think most of us will worry. But the people we’re talking about will have more worry compared to the population as a whole,” Dr. Sullivan says.
“It’s these people providers worry about – those who don’t function as well as others. Those for whom worry becomes excessive and invades every area of life,” she adds.
A recent study from Sahlgrenska Academy at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg followed 800 women for 38 years. Researchers monitored the women’s stress levels and assessed their personality characteristics. Within this group, 19 percent (153 women) developed a form of dementia, mostly Alzheimer’s disease.
Based on their data, researchers discovered women who are highly neurotic, easily distressed, moody or jealous have double the risk of developing dementia. Women who were more introverted had the same risk, and the link was stronger with longer-lasting stress.
However, there are ways to protect your mental capacity and functioning, she says.
Open up and reach out
If you’re feeling stressed, Dr. Sullivan recommends talking to the people who are closest to you. This step can be particularly important if you’re introverted and accustomed to bottling your emotions inside. Don’t try to handle your feelings alone.
“Extroverts are better at processing their emotions – they’re more likely to reach out to people in their lives to help deal with things. Introverts tend to internally hold on to emotion, and that’s an unhealthy characteristic,” she says.
“Holding on to stress does damage to the body. All major organ systems are affected by stress. It affects the body and is linked to dementia,” she adds.
Having a sounding board – a best friend or family member – can protect your long-term mental function, she says.
Stay in the present
It’s easy to focus on past regrets or worry about future problems. Instead, Dr. Sullivan says, stay rooted in the present. It will make handling your emotions much easier.
“I tell my patients if they’re in the past, they are more likely to experience regret, remorse and depression. If they are anxious about the future, they’ll have stress and worry,” Dr. Sullivan says. “If they’re able to focus on the present, they’re more likely to experience joy.”
She recommends consistently practicing mindfulness meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, other relaxation techniques, and aerobic exercise as effective ways to boost your overall health and ability to manage stress.
Know when to ask for help
It can be hard to recognize when you’ve reached the end of your rope, Dr. Sullivan says. Listen to friends and family closest to you if they mention your anxiety and stress.
If you’re able – even if you’re just mildly stressed – consider seeing a psychologist. Having someone who’s completely objective to listen to you can significantly boost your stress management.
“Learning how to process our emotions in a healthy way can safeguard our brain function later in life,” she says. “If we want that functioning, it’s important to know how to deal with stress and the depression and anxiety that accompanies it.”
Notice the signs
If you’re close to someone who’s experiencing stress – especially over a long period – keep your eyes open for the tell-tale signs it’s time to seek help.
Drinking more alcohol or taking more over-the-counter medication is always a cause for alarm, but there are others, Dr. Sullivan says. Your friend or family member might switch from easily managing her life and being social to acting irritable and withdrawn.
“If someone isn’t taking as good care of themselves, these are red flags to seek help,” Dr. Sullivan says. “If they’re crying when they shouldn’t necessarily be tearful, if their sleeping patterns change, or if they have an overall feeling of anxiety or an inability to control their thoughts, step in and help.”