Middle adulthood is a 20th century phenomenon in Western culture
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In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years, but now life expectancy has increased- people are living longer and more professionals are studying life during this age period. Between the ages of 35-64, there are vast changes in many areas of their lives. Stress is anything that causes a change in your body. The most obvious changes related to lifestyle in middle-adulthood include: physical development and health, marital status, family, career and finances and self-concept. Stress is a natural part of living, but too much stress can cause illness and increase the risk of death.
In order to maintain a proper level of stress, adults must rely more on knowledge and insight to enhance overall health, well-being and longevity, as well as learning to come to grips with developmental challenges and transitions, to avoid having a stressful life. This can be achieved by learning what stress is, its causes and effects, and solutions of how one can be relieved of it. Stress plays a role in many of the diseases of middle adulthood; it has been identified as being associated with cardiovascular disease, reduced immunological resistance to diseases and psychosomatic distress, to name a few.
In 1936, Hans Selye, the father of stress research, defined stress as the body’s response to any demand placed on it. He discovered the General Adaptation Syndrome, which consists of three stages: the alarm, the resistance, and exhaustion. The alarm stage is the first immediate reaction to a stressor. But this initial response can decrease the effectiveness of the immune system, making persons more susceptible to illness during this phase. The second phase, stage of resistance, is if the stress continues, the body adapts to the stressors.
Changes at many levels take place in order to reduce the effect of the stressor. The stage of exhaustion is the last stage, where the body’s resistance to the stress may gradually be reduced. This means the immune system, and the body’s ability to resist disease, may be almost totally eliminated. People with long-term stress may succumb to heart attacks or severe infection due to their reduced immunity. The body gives signals to let one know he/she is experiencing stress.
Stress may emanate from various sources and manifest in many behaviors such as sleep disturbances, depression, headaches and backaches, fluctuations in appetite, inability to concentrate, fatigue and exhaustion, etc. The key is to learn what triggers one’s personal stress and practice techniques to create a balance. One of the major aspects of middle adulthood is the physical and biological changes that occur in the body. In general, concerns about health rises in the middle years, but some view physical development as being abrupt and stressful.
Their thoughts about health often tend to be more negative than positive, expressing fears about future health, “probably more because they experience greater number of serious illnesses and deaths of their loved ones than do younger people, and from the fact that the changes in their bodies are more abrupt” (Dacey, 2002, p. 402). As people get older, there are changes that affect sensory, motor skills and internal body functions. In the process of aging, physical and mental ability decreases, which affects one’s sense of well-being.
A positive sense of well-being directly contributes to healthy aging. There are also changes in weight, which for some could be the result of genetic inheritance while others “do not compensate for their lowering basal metabolism rate” (Dacey, 2002, p. 403). BMR lowers because of a drop in the ratio of lean body mass to fat, that effects weight gain especially if one continues to eat the same rate throughout their life. Obesity increases the levels of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and risk of death.
Cardiovascular health and muscular ability is also challenged since there is an increase of cholesterol and blood pressure that can result in heart attacks; and decrease in muscle strength and flexibility, especially in the back and legs. The solution to this is nutrition and exercise. Changes in diet, such as eating fish and poultry instead of red meat, fewer eggs, drinking skim milk instead of whole, and following a diet high in fiber and lowering intake of fat, can prevent heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
Exercise is also very helpful; “aerobic activity such as swimming and brisk walking appears to maintain general health because it demands that the heart pump a great deal of blood to the large muscles of the legs” (Dacey, 2002, p. 404). Following these suggestions can help adults maintain good health, which would lessen one’s stress levels and worries about their health in the future. Hormonal changes are also severe stressors; climacteric is the broad complex of physical and emotional symptoms that accompany reproductive changes in middle adulthood, affecting both men and women.
In aging men, there is a decline or loss of both libido and potency, but testosterone declines only very gradually with age. Men’s decrease in sexual potency is not the result of hormone changes, but rather the slowing down of the central system. For women, during menopause, their hormone levels decline, less estrogen is produced and the reproductive system shuts down. A lack of understanding of menopause coupled with fears of growing old can account for the negative feelings about menopause.
More knowledge and social support at this time in a woman’s life is very important in reducing negative feelings and stress. The impairments attributed to these changes will decrease, when one gains a better understanding of how hormone balances change and how the different changes interact with each other. Another lifestyle factor that appears to affect health is internally generated stress which can stem from issues in marital status, family relationships, and career and finances. One of the main difficulties that couples face revolves around expectations.
Each person in the relationship brings a set of explicit, implicit and unrealistic expectations. These expectations, when in conflict with the other person’s expectations, can create a great a deal of stress. During middle age, husbands and wives often reappraise their marriage. The midlife transition is a “period during which people seriously reevaluate their lives up to that time, which often causes a person to examine current relationships and consider changes for the future” (Dacey, 2002, p. 431).
Many times, in effect couples get divorced. Because of more liberal divorce laws like the no fault divorce, “more people are inclined to begin and follow through with the process of getting a divorce if they are unhappy in their marriage” (Group 5, Divorce, 4/29/2002). Although there are many different stressors that cause divorce and separation, such as differences “in interpersonal factors, lack of communication and trust, and low family income” (Group 5), researchers believe married couples are healthier than single or divorced couples.
They tend to have fewer chronic conditions and disabilities, and increased satisfaction and happiness in the workplace. Married couples have such benefits because they have increased availability of socioeconomic resources, “marriage provides social support and protection against social isolation” (Group 4, Marriage 4/29/2004) and spousal influence and involvement may encourage health-promoting behaviors and deter unhealthy behaviors. Families are a complex network of interactions. Each family is a system, so each interaction and each personality affects the entire system.
When a member is for example, ill, angry or depressed, this can disrupt the system, which often creates difficulties for the family who is trying to adapt or compensate for one of its members. Most people develop improved relationships with their parents and gain new perspective on parenthood, during middle age. However, in many cases, the relationship begins to reverse, and “as the elderly parent grows older, they sometimes become as dependent on their middle-aged children as those children once were on them” (Dacey, 2002, p. 433).
But caring for their aging parents and parents-in-law is very demanding and very stressful for the caregiver. Caregiving takes a great deal of time, effort, and work, and stress is caused by taking on too many responsibilities, which can lead to health problems. Foremost importance for the primary caregivers is to stay healthy with rest and a good diet and especially to call on friends, family members, and neighbors for social support (emotional, financial, or other support) and assistance, in order to prevent stress and burnout.
Career and finances is another important cause of stress in adults. During the middle adult years, there is a noticeable change in how adults view their careers. This tends to be the time of career and financial readjustment and planning for both men and women. During middle years, family expenses become greater and they must make financial adjustments: one that tends to take place during this time is planning for college and setting aside necessary funds for their children.
In response to the growing financial needs, they become dual career families where both spouses work, and many women enter or reenter the work force. However, the working woman encounters many problems, since she is still considered responsible for maintenance of the home and family, she suffers from sexual harassment on the job; marriages being strained because husbands dislike like their wives nontraditional occupation; women’s competence is questioned, they have stiffer job requirements, and lower paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement.
Men also experience stress in dual-career families, as a result of family size and inflexible work schedules because they need to balance the demands of both work and family, instead of focusing only on work. Men also have to “adjust psychologically to the increased role of their wives as providers of the family” (Dacey, 2002, p. 363), since much of their self-image and personal satisfaction was from their work and their ability to support their family.
One way to gain more satisfaction is by taking on a greater role in the care of their children and feeling less threatened by the entrance of women in the workplace. If individuals have not reached their goals by this time, many adjust their level of aspirations or get new careers; but in opposite cases, many are unable to recognize they have unrealistic aspirations and desires, which leads to stress from frustration and suffering. Middle age adults in Erikson’s generativity stage are productive and useful to society, and produce something of lasting value for future generations.
But those in mid-career crisis realize that the time left to make such a contribution is limited, causing feelings of anxiety and resentment. They feel that it is impossible to keep-up-to-date with the modern techniques that a younger person may know more about and feel resentful of younger employees since they still have a chance to progress. Stagnation produces adults who are selfish and live to satisfy only their own needs, and those who do not want to establish a sense of commitment to the future. This stressor can cause psychosomatic symptoms like indigestion and extreme tiredness.
To deal with stress from poor self-concept, middle age workers can help younger employees make significant contributions, and become their mentor. Companies are also taking responsibility for continuing education for employees, and laws are made prohibiting age discrimination in employment. A sense of well being is a comfort level with one’s physical and emotional health status. It implies a sense of being in control, to make decisions and appropriate planning and management. To maintain a balanced level of stress, one can learn solutions to managing everyday stressors.
Managing stress requires a personal, self-assuring, pro-active commitment in order to effectively create a healthier lifestyle, and the experience of well-being. Physical and biological changes, marriage status, family relationships, career and finance, and self-concept are not the only causes of stress. There is a variety of stressors, good and bad; how one reacts to it is important. Success depends on adaptation to, or the anticipation of change. It is essential to welcome change, in order to avoid intense stress and be able to exploit the new niches opening up on a constant basis.