By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.

If you went to a funeral back in the 1960s, and the dearly departed was in their 70s when they died, people would console one another by saying, “He (or she) lived a long, full life.” Today, if you went to a funeral and the dearly departed was in their 70s when they died, people would ask, “What happened?”

Twenty years ago I met my first 100-year-old client. Although he couldn’t walk and couldn’t see, his mind was still fairly lucid. I walked away amazed. Now, 100-year-olds come into my office regularly with varying degrees of mental capacity. Some walking on their own two feet — no walker!!!

It’s no doubt, these days doctors and wonder drugs are doing a great job at keeping people alive a lot longer. This past year, a 108-year-old Japanese American woman came into my office (an office record!!!). She was still walking around like she was a mere 80. Even more impressive was that her mind was still sharp. I asked her what her secret was. She said with a smile, “I don’t worry or stress about anything.”

Now, when someone who is healthy at 108 tells you the secret to longevity, you should listen. So I thought, do I worry about anything? Do I get stressed out? Since the new year is a time of reflection, I had to be honest with myself — you bet I do. So my New Year’s resolution for 2023 is to try to worry less and not stress out as much.

You might say, “Why not just resolve to not worry in 2023?” According to a Harvard Medical School guide, any goal must be realistic. “Choosing the change you most need to make — let’s say, quitting smoking or losing weight — isn’t as successful as choosing the change you’re most confident you’ll be able to make.” Your goal has to be “achievable.”

According to WebMd.com, my 108-year-old client was 100% right. Chronic worry and emotional stress can trigger something called the fight-or-flight response. This response causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides (blood fats) that can be used by the body for fuel.

When the excessive fuel in the blood isn’t used for physical activities, the chronic anxiety and outpouring of stress hormones can cause a host of health problems, including:

* Suppression of the immune system
* Digestive disorders
* Muscle tension
* Short-term memory loss
* Premature coronary artery disease
* Heart attack

Although these effects are a response to stress, stress is simply the trigger. Whether or not you become ill depends on how you handle stress. Physical responses to stress involve your immune system, your heart and blood vessels, and how certain glands in your body secrete hormones. These hormones help to regulate various functions in your body, such as brain function and nerve impulses.

All of these systems interact and are profoundly influenced by your coping style and your psychological state. It isn’t the stress that makes you ill. Rather, it’s the effect responses such as excessive worrying and anxiety have on these various interacting systems that can bring on the physical illness. There are things you can do, though, including lifestyle changes, to alter the way you respond.

So when Harvard Medical School put out a guide, “101 Tips for Tip-Top Health,” I started looking for tips about easing stress and not worrying. The following are just some of the “101 Tips for Tip-Top Health” that I thought dealt with worry and stress:

1. Overextended? Clear the deck of at least one time-consuming household task. Hire a
housecleaning service, shop for groceries online, convene a family meeting to consider who can take on certain jobs, or barter with or pay teens — your own or local hires — for house or yard work. Consider what is truly essential and important to you and what might take a back seat right now.

2. Feeling unbearably tense? Try massage, a hot bath, or a mindful walk. Practically any exercise — a brisk walk, a quick run, a sprint up and down the stairs — will help, too. When done regularly, exercise wards off tension.

3. Frequently feel pessimistic? Remind yourself of the value of learned optimism: a more joyful life and, quite possibly, better health. Practice deflating cognitive distortions. Rent funny movies and read amusing books. Create a mental list of reasons you have to feel grateful. If the list seems too short, consider beefing up your social network and adding creative, productive, and leisure pursuits to your life.

4. Upset by conflicts with others? State your needs or distress directly, avoiding “you always” or “you never” zingers. Say, “I feel _____ when you _____.” “I would really appreciate it if you could _____.” “I need some help setting priorities. What needs to be done first and what should I tackle later?” If conflicts are a significant source of distress for you, consider a class on assertiveness training.

5. Worn out or burned out? Nurture yourself. Care for your body by eating good, healthy food and for your heart by seeking out others. Give thought to creative, productive, and leisure activities. Consider your priorities in life: is it worth feeling this way, or is another path open to you? If you want help, consider what kind would be best. Do you want a particular task at work to be taken off your hands? Do you want to do it at a later date? Do you need someone with particular expertise to assist you?

6. Often angry or irritated? Consider the weight of cognitive distortions. Are you magnifying a problem, leaping to conclusions, or applying emotional reasoning? Take the time to stop,
breathe, reflect, and choose.

7. Unsure of your ability to do something? Don’t try to go it alone. If the problem is work, talk to a co-worker or supportive boss. Ask a knowledgeable friend, check reliable online sources, or call the local library or an organization that can supply the information you need. Write down other ways that you might get the answers or skills you need. Turn to CDs, books, or classes, for example, if you need a little tutoring. This works equally well when you’re learning relaxation response techniques, too.

8. Feeling lonely? Connect with others. Even little connections — a brief conversation in line at the grocery store, an exchange about local goings-on with a neighbor, a question for a colleague — can help melt the ice within you. It may embolden you, too, to seek more opportunities to connect. Be a volunteer. Attend religious or community functions. Suggest coffee with an acquaintance. Call a friend or relative you miss. Take an interesting class.

9. Take a mental break. Stepping away from the problem in front of you can help calm fear and reduce pain. They’re equally helpful in thwarting stress before an important meeting, while stuck in traffic, or when faced with people or situations that annoy you.

10. Focus on breathing. Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to take a few slow, deep breaths. Or alternatively, while sitting comfortably, take a few slow deep breaths and silently repeat to yourself “I am” as you breathe in and “at peace” as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of the chair.

11. Count down slowly. Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply, saying “10” to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say “nine,” and so on. If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.

12. Do a body scan. While sitting down, take a break from whatever you’re doing and check your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so that there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly for a short while.

13. Strengthen your social bonds. Given the pleasures and benefits of social ties, why not grasp opportunities to expand your social circle and deepen the ties you’ve already made? Here are some ways to do just that:

• If you normally wait for others to reach out, pick up the phone and propose a date.

• Explore some of the many volunteer opportunities available, from wielding tools to help spruce up affordable housing to mentoring a child or businessperson.

• Embrace technology. Email, texting, tweeting, and, yes, even old-school telephones extend your reach around the world. Social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn can help you connect with old friends or find new work opportunities.

• Find like-minded people through intriguing classes and organizations, or by harnessing social media engines that can link you to just about anyone interested in doing just about anything.

• Religion offers enormous support to many people around the world. If that’s true for you, join in on services that suit your faith. If it’s hard to get to religious services, ask fellow congregants to escort you. If a significant illness keeps you away, find out if your spiritual leader makes home visits.

• Remember that social support is a two-way street. Offer assistance to friends, family, and neighbors. Accept help or a hand reached out in friendship when it’s offered to you.

• Consider adopting a pet. Research shows that pets can have beneficial effects on your physical and emotional health. Plus, taking a dog for walks encourages you to be active and links you with like-minded animal lovers.

In conclusion, remember that rushing change rarely works. Few of us are designed to go from zero to 60. Let small, steady changes help you achieve what you hope to do. Also, lapses are so normal, experts actually write this into the stages of change. Embrace lapses as part of the process, then brainstorm solutions to the challenges that derailed you. If necessary, whip out your plan to maneuver around lapses. And try, try again.

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Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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