How we experience stress

March 6, 2021
September 7, 2022

Dementia can often make everyday activities seem overwhelming and unfamiliar. This can result in stress and anxiety for a person with dementia as they go about their lives.

For a carer, knowing how to react to the stress and distress of the person can make a big difference.

Stress can manifest itself in a range of physiological responses, including increased heart rate or body temperature, tensing up, or the rushing of blood to the muscles. It can also lead to loss of appetite, butterflies in the tummy or the need to go to the toilet.

The time intensity model shows the stages we all go through as we become stressed and agitated. 

A trigger – the event or situation that causes the stress – leads to agitation, which gradually accelerates. When things reach a peak, it becomes impossible to think straight. Once emotional and physical energy start to dissipate, distress deescalates, leading to recovery before the cycle returns to calm.

For healthy individuals it can take a long time to return to the baseline of calm from the peak of distress. For people with dementia, it can take even longer, as they are more likely to experience another confusing or challenging situation in that time which creates multiple peaks and many experience a continual heightened state of emotion.

It can be scary to feel this way. If the person has memory difficulties, they may struggle to remember what has caused them to feel distressed and to make sense of it, or to communicate to others what had occurred to make them feel the way they do.

There are things you can do to help the person with dementia deal with stressful situations. Try not to tell the person to calm down, as this is almost impossible at the peak of distress. Instead, listen, try to be empathetic, supportive and inquisitive – ask how they’re feeling.

If you are approaching someone in distress, make sure they can see and hear you before moving too close or touching the person. It is important to know what they are comforted by – this will be different for everybody.  It is also important to make sure the situation is not causing you undue stress and anxiety.

Dementia Carers Count can support you with this, and help reduce these peaks of unpleasantness for you and the person with dementia.

How we experience stress
The process we all go through when we experience stressful situations can be triggered more quickly for people with dementia, and last longer
Emotional wellbeing
Managing emotions