Tag Archive for stress management

Teach Your Children Hardiness

Times are tough, no doubt. But you can use these tough times to teach your children an important skill: hardiness. Hardiness is a psychological term describing a pattern of managing stress (aka-tough times) in a way that leads to greater success and joy. People who develop hardiness tend to manage stress better, take better care of their health, and view themselves as capable. Doesn’t that sound like traits we want our children to learn? We can help our children grow hardier by promoting the “three C’s” in their lives: commitment, challenge, and control.  Here is a very brief description of each one and things you can say that may help your children grow hardier through the tough times.

  • Commitment. Commitment refers to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It is marked by involvement instead of withdrawal and isolation. A person of commitment keeps their eye on the larger meaning of life, their purpose. They look at problems within the context of “something bigger,” the context of values, priorities, and meaning. Questions you might ask your children during “hard times” or problems that can promote commitment include:
    • What makes this so important to you? What does this mean for you?
    • What do you ultimately want from this situation? In an ideal world, what would be the perfect outcome?
    • What is most interesting to you about this…?
    • What makes this situation so important to you? Why does it arouse such strong emotion in you?
    • How do you think you can become a better person by dealing with this challenge?
  • Challenge. People with hardiness see the problem as a challenge, an opportunity to learn and grow. Because they are committed to a life of meaning and purpose, they see the challenge, the tough times, as an opportunity to move toward the ultimate goals of their values and purpose. You can help instill a sense of challenge in your children with comments like:
    • What can we learn from this situation?
    • That did not work out the way we/you wanted. But we did learn that….
    • How can you use what you learned in this situation to grow stronger? To bring your life more in line with your values?
    • How can you communicate you values and priorities effectively during this tough time (problem, conflict, etc.)?
    • Remember other times when you overcame problems even when it was hard?
  • Control. Control refers to our belief in our own agency, our influence in the situation or our ability to choose our response. It is the opposite of powerlessness. It combines with a sense of challenge to see what aspects of the stressful situations we have influence over and then seeks to exert that influence to create a positive change. We can help our children grow an appropriate sense of control by asking:
    • What are your options?
    • What will you do now?
    • What parts of this situation can you change?
    • There are a lot of contributors to this situation. Which ones are within your power to change?
    • What mistakes did you make? How will you do it differently next time?
    • How can you improve this situation? Or make this problem better?

Simple questions that can help your child develop hardiness over time…and reap the benefits of growing into a hardy adult.

A Less Stressful Family in Only 20 Minutes!

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology has established, for the first time, the effective dosage for a safe prescription aimed at reducing stress. This study established the most appropriate and effect dosage over an 8-week study in which participants followed various levels of the prescription 3 times a day. The treatment prescription did not involve medication in any form. It only involved spending at least 10 minutes during daylight hours outside “interacting” with nature—no aerobic exercise, no social media, no phone calls, no reading—just enjoying nature. That’s right. Spending time immersed in nature was the prescription.

The results indicated that 20 minutes in nature “significantly reduced cortisol levels,” one of the biological markers of stress. In fact, 20-30 minutes was the “sweet spot” in which cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate. After 30 minutes, a person still experienced a decrease in stress but at a much slower rate. 

Do you ever feel stressed? Do you ever notice your family feeling stressed? Here is a simple prescription to relieve that stress: leave your cell phones, books, and computers in the car and spend 20-30 minutes walking in the park or the nearby woods or along the creek…you know, in nature. Enjoy the sounds and the colors. Enjoy the birds and other wildlife. Enjoy “Shinrin-Yoku,” or “forest bathing.” Your stress will decrease. Your family’s stress will decrease. If you go with your family, you may find yourself enjoying one another’s company as well. Decreased stress. Increased connection. No negative side effects. Sounds like a great prescription. I’m inviting my family to take this prescription with me today. How about you?

The Superpower You Can Give Your Spouse

I love love…and I love reading experiments about the power of love to influence our lives. If love is powerful, then the love of a spouse is a superpower. For instance, researchers at Brigham Young University subjected 40 couples to intentionally challenging tasks on the computer while measuring their pupil diameter (a rapid and direct measure of the body’s physiological level of stress). In one group, an individual from the couple worked alone on the task. In a second group, the person’s spouse sat near them and held their hand while they worked on the task. Both groups were initially stressed BUT the group that held hands with a loving spouse calmed down much more quickly. As a result, they were able to work on the task with reduced stress levels. Just having a loving spouse nearby holding their hand reduced their stress. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.

In her book Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson refers to several studies that show the power of love.

  • A study by Mario Mikulincer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel monitored the heart rates of couples as they responded to scenarios of couples in conflict. Those who felt close to their partners (who knew the superpower of a spouse’s love) reported feeling less angry and attributed less malicious intent to the partner. They expressed more problem-solving initiative and made greater effort to reconnect. In other words, a partner’s love decreased feelings of anger and increased the perception of positive intent, even during arguments. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • In addition, the power of love led to a greater curiosity and willingness to try new things. That willingness to explore and have adventures with the one we love increases intimacy and personal growth. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • Jim Coyne, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania concluded from the research that the love people share with their spouse is a good a predictor of survival at four years after congestive heart failure. In fact, it’s as good of a predictor of survival as the severity of the symptoms and impairment caused by the congestive heart failure. In other words, the power of a loving spouse is at least as powerful, if not more powerful, as congestive heart failure. That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.
  • One of my favorite studies in this area shows the power love has over pain. At the University of Virginia women received MRI brain scans while under the threat of possibly receiving a small electric shock on their feet. You can imagine the stress of this threat. When a loving partner held the women’s hands, they registered less stress on the MRI. When they did receive a small shock, they experienced less pain! The happier (the more loving) the relationship, the more pronounced the effect. In other words, the power of love is stronger than shock, stress, and pain! That’s the superpower of a loving spouse.

Maybe Huey Lewis was on to something when he sang, “that’s the power of love.” Or, maybe he needed to change the lyrics to “that’s the superpower of a loving spouse.” Then again, that just doesn’t rhyme. Nonetheless, the love of a spouse is a superpower…and I’m going to share that superpower with my spouse. How about you?

Good for Both Giver & Receiver

Life seems stressed these days, doesn’t it? Turn on the news…stress. Try to manage your schedule…stress. Weather…stress. Work demands, school demands, extracurricular demands, church demands, demands, demands, demands…stress. All that stress is bound to impact our marriages and our families. It robs us of mental clarity and patience. As a result, we have a greater chance of conflict with our spouses and our children.

But there is good news. I have discovered a way to reduce stress and improve mental clarity. Not only that, but this activity will increase a sense of closeness and intimacy, especially in your marriage. It’s true. A study showed this activity reduced stress and improved mental clarity after only one time. And, the reduction of stress accrued over the 9 times couples did it during the 3 week study. In other words, stress continued dropping with each time the couple engaged in this activity. What activity did all this? Massage. Yes, massage. In this study, 38 couples took a massage class each week for 3 weeks. Each class focused on massaging one part of the body (back, arms and shoulders, legs). Then, they practiced giving each other a massage three times a week (Yes, they had homework). Both the giver and the receiver of the massage experienced a reduction in stress and an improvement in mental clarity…BOTH the giver and the receiver! I like a massage…and I like the sound of reduced stress and improved mental clarity.

Although not part of the study, I believe this likely improved intimacy as well. Taking the time to massage one another means more time focused on one another—quality time focused on the one we love. Giving a massage means increasing our awareness of the one we are massaging (our partner).  Massage reduces stress and that means greater patience. Greater patience means less conflict. In addition, touch releases oxytocin and oxytocin increases a sense of connection. Massage involves a lot of touch. Your spouse will appreciate your massage and appreciation build deeper connection. So, why not take the time this weekend to give one another a massage. In this world of stress, we all need a little haven of relaxation and intimacy.  Enjoy!

Beach Balls, Chopsticks, & Ping Pong Balls…Oh My!!

What do beach balls, chopsticks, and ping pong balls have in common? They teach us an important lesson about marriage. What? Really? Yes indeed. It’s true. They teach us to bring laughter into our marriages. When spouses laugh together they report feeling more supported and cared for by one another (Couples Who Do This Together are Happier). They also report greater relationship satisfaction and connection. (The Effect of Reminiscing about Laughter on Relationship Satisfaction)  In addition, a review of 230 baseball players revealed genuine smiles could lead to a longer life! (Grinning for a Longer Life)  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift to give your spouse—a longer life for both of you? Smiling and laughter can even reduce stress (Smile It’s Good for Your Heart & LOL-On Safari for the Elusive Smile), making it easier to recover from moments of conflict.

So, whether you do a beach ball ballet,

the Tissue Box Bop, or wisely use chopsticks like the Chinese, bring a little laughter into your marriage. You won’t regret it!

PS-If you missed our couple’s retreat P.L.A.Y. Rx you missed learning more about the joys of play, laughter, adventure, yearning, and rest for your marriage. But, here are some pictures of the times we shared.  Hope to see you next year.

3 Ways Giving Support Will Benefit Your Family

Paul was on his way to Rome when he called the elders of Ephesus to meet him. He wanted to offer one last message of encouragement to them. That message ended with these encourage-synonymswords: “…In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (Acts 20:35).  A recent study confirmed the wisdom of this statement in regard to giving support to others.  Specifically, researchers from University of Pittsburgh and University of California (LA) asked 36 participants about receiving and giving support. Of course, both giving and receiving support led to fewer negative outcomes. But these researchers went a step further in their investigation. They used fMRI’s to assess the brain activation of participants engaged in at least three types of tasks.

  1. One task involved participants performing a “stressful mental math task.” During this task, the fMRI revealed that those who gave the most support to others had reduced activity in the brain areas related to stress response.
  2. Another group of participants looked at pictures of loved ones. In this scenario, fMRI’s revealed increased activity in the brain’s reward system for those who gave higher levels of support to others.
  3. A third group had a chance to win money for someone in need. In this group, fMRI’s also revealed increased activity in the brain’s reward system for those who gave higher levels of support.

In summary, giving support to those in need contributed to an improved ability to manage stress and an increased ability to enjoy reward, at least on a neurological level. Isn’t that a great benefit for families?  If we model giving support to others in the family and encourage our family to do the same, we promote more feelings of reward and fewer “stressed out” feelings. By supporting one another’s dreams you can bring a greater sense of reward into your family. Supporting one another when troubles arise will decrease family stress. We really can build a healthier family by giving and receiving support. But, in the long run, it is even better to give than receive!

What Do Laughing Rats Teach Us About Family?

The “tickle monster” (aka-my hand) was poised above my infant daughter’s body as she lay on her back, hands held cautiously in front of her, eyes wide and sparkling with joy.  Her hands served as a buffer between the “tickle monster” and the “tickle monster’s” target–her belly and neck.  Her eyes followed my hand’s every move. “The tickle monster’s gonna get you,” I said in my best sing-song voice. When the “tickle monster” made a slight movement in my daughter’s direction, she curled into a ball, grabbed her stomach and started to giggle. The “tickle monster” then swooped toward her belly and tickled her. She laughed hysterically, a contagious laugh that made several other people in the room laugh, too. I tried to end our game, but she took my hand and put it on her stomach. She wanted to continue.


I was reminded of these “tickle games” when I read about a study in which researchers imposed a “tickle test” on a group of rats. (Not that my daughters are rats…oh man, that didn’t come out right…bad sentence sequencing. Maybe they won’t read this one. Anyway….) In this study, the researchers “exposed a one group of rats to a tickle test”–they tickled the rats for two, two minute sessions on a daily basis for two weeks (a lot of two’s there). After a short time, the rats seemed to enjoy the company of the tickler. When the tickler’s hand entered the caged, they followed it around, waiting to get tickled. (read more about this study and watch the video by clicking here


After two weeks, the researchers subjected the “tickle test” group and a “non-tickle test” group to a repeated stressful situation (did you ever think you’d see the words “tickle test,” rats, and stress in a blog about family?). After their stress hormones were elevated, the stressful situation ended and the researchers monitored the rats’ stress hormones. The “tickle test” group of rats recovered from the stress more quickly. Their stress hormones went down more rapidly. The tickling appeared to have helped them recover from stress. (read more of these results here)


Of course we do not live in a family of rats. Well…. No, really, we don’t. But several years ago, studies showed that laughter, as well as the anticipation of laughter, reduced stress hormones while increasing beta-endorphins (feel good hormones) in humans. In other words, laughter helps us recover from stress, too. I think that the experience of tickling and laughter builds connections and pathways in our brains that help us recover from stress. Maybe the physical contact of tickling is the key ingredient. Or, maybe the key ingredient is the playful interaction enjoyed…or the time spent laughing together…or the hormones released during laughter. I don’t know. But, I do know this: if you would like to teach your family to recover from stressful events more quickly, have some fun together. Tickle, laugh, play. Enjoy one another’s company. I actually think I’m going to push my luck and make my family a “tickle test group.” (That’s a group of people, not rats…come on people, what did you think I meant?) Anyway, want to join the fun…tickle away!

A Magic Bullet?

I have spent what seems like a lifetime in search of some way to buffer my children against stress. The world seems to bombard our children with demands and pressures, “you have to’s” and “you better’s.” You know what I mean, the “You have to do perfect on the state assessment tests (PSSA’s for us) or you won’t graduate,” “You must practice all year or you won’t make the team,” “You have to enroll your child in the best preschool or they’ll miss out on the right college,” “You must learn a language, work for extra cash, practice every day for the play, make your curve ball perfect, volunteer each week, study for your bio test, talk to your friends, read 25 books…” You get the idea. I’m sure you have watched your children struggle through this litany of stressors and more. How can we help our children manage this stress? How can we buffer them against this kind of stress? I have finally found one answer to that question. It may not be the only answer, but it is a start…a very important start…and it has added benefits too. What is this magic bullet? Play! That’s right, unsupervised, unstructured, frivolous play. Allowing children to enjoy play, and engaging them in play, will buffer them against stress. Play provides the opportunity for children to work through, and relieve, their stress. Through play, children may act out possible solutions to their stress or simply repeat certain scenarios until they find themselves comfortable with them. In addition, play provides the opportunity for children to discover strengths and competencies, which helps reduce stress. Children can conquer their fears while acting out adult roles through play. They learn to cooperate and work as a group during play. All of this helps build competencies and reduce stress.
When parents allow their children to guide and lead them in a play activity, they learn a lot about their children. They will learn to see the world through their children’s eyes and discover how their children think about the world. This knowledge allows a parent to become familiar with their children and, as a result, more easily address their children’s worries and fears. Parents also learn how to better communicate with their children through the knowledge gained during play. As an added bonus, receiving a parent’s full attention and observing that a parent will follow “my guidance,” provides children with a sense of value…which is another great buffer against stress.

All of this (and I didn’t even mention how play allows a child to grow in creativity, language, negotiation, and self-control) will help your children respond to stress in a positive way. Oh yeah, and it is fun!  Play may not be the only way to help buffer a child against stress, but it is one way I don’t want to miss out on. How about you? Aye, wait a minute…why are you still sitting there? Go on; get out there with your children and play!

What A Week!

Ever have one of those weeks in which everything frustrates you? I have…just last week in fact. I was a little frustrated and irritable (alright, my family would say very irritable) all week. It was a busy week with multiple changes and transitions. “Nothing” seemed to go right. “Everything” (and I mean “everything”) frustrated me. “Everything” I did went from “bad to worse.” I just knew that “it would never get any better” and “everything I do always ends in disaster.” I was stressed, short-tempered with my family, and not a lot of fun to be around. I felt disconnected from my family. I realized I needed to make a change to get back on track, to reconnect. But how? Well, here are some actions I found helpful. Maybe you will find them helpful, too.
     ·         Take a break. I know it’s busy. There is never enough time to get everything done. However, if you get caught up in the busy-ness of life you may forget to rest; and, you may disconnect from those things in life that are most important, like family. You will grow increasingly irritated and disconnected. So, take a break. Put your work aside for an evening or a day and relax. Do something fun with your family. Or, just relax at home with a good book.

·         Check Your Thought Life. Think about how you are thinking. Listen to the dialogue in your head. Notice the words in the first paragraph that are in quotes? When you find yourself thinking in terms of “everything,” “always,” or other global absolutes, it’s time to take stock of your thoughts and make the effort to change those thoughts. Consider whether the evidence supports your thoughts (it probably does not). Rewrite your inner dialogue with some more accurate and realistic thinking, thinking that reflects the fact that problems arise and then you deal with them. Change your thinking to acknowledge the support you receive from family and friends. Challenge yourself to reestablish thoughts that keep a mole hill a mole hill rather than letting thoughts that turn a mole hill into a mountain run amuck in your mind.

·         Apologize. You may need to apologize to your family for how you behaved or spoke. Apologize for your irritability. Do not make excuses or blame your family for your mood. Simply apologize for your actions. After apologizing, acknowledge your need for support…which reminds me of the next action.

·         Ask for Help. Life can be difficult and even overwhelming. Turn to your family and ask for help. Explain your feelings and mood to your family. Let them in on your emotional life. They can’t help you if they don’t know what’s going on. So, if there are ways they can help, ask. Then, thank them for helping.
That can help you break out of that mood. I know it helps me. But, what if you are a family member of the person having a rough day? Family members can help by continuing to act in love. Sometimes it is hard to love the person who snaps at you in their irritability or mutters in frustration. But, the love of family can help cheer an irritable person up. Love with your words and actions. Here are some ways to show your love to the irritable family member.
     ·         Be Patient. I know it can be difficult, but patiently bear with their bad mood. Of course, you can set boundaries and limits that fit within your family values but love “bears all things.” A person may need some space in order to get past their frustration. Family may help by patiently allowing for that space.

·         Be available. Remaining available includes offering a listening ear, giving a hug, rubbing a back, or sitting quietly in the same room… anything that shows your genuine concern and love. Let your family member know you are available through your words and your actions. Let them know that you are willing to help in any way reasonable.

·         Be Kind. Along with remaining available, show your love and consideration through acts of kindness. Do a chore around the house that your frustrated family member would normally do. Take extra time to sit with them. Prepare a special treat for them. Sometimes kindness may mean leaving them alone and giving them space.

·         Finally, Don’t Keep a Record of Wrongs. Everyone has bad days. We have all had times of irritability. When a loved one goes through a period of irritability and then returns to their “normal self,” don’t hold it against them. Do not keep a record of their wrongs. When they apologize, be gracious to accept that apology. And, discuss what they think would help them if (or when) they experience their next period of frustration and irritability. Perhaps above all, remember that “love covers a multitude of sins.”
I found these suggestions very helpful this last week. I hope you find them helpful as well.

The Face of Anger in Your Family

Anger has many faces. The positive face of anger serves a beneficial purpose in our family and our life. It helps us identify and clarify our priorities. It communicates those priorities to our family members through facial expressions and words. Anger also injects us with energy to deal with any obstacles that frustrate our efforts to live by our chosen priorities and values. Unfortunately, the negative faces of anger use that energy but do clarify, communicate, or serve our priorities. In fact, these ineffective faces of anger prove counterproductive, and even detrimental, to our priorities and our family! Consider whether you wear any of these five ineffective faces of anger. Then, read the suggestions that follow to help you put on a more effective face of anger.
1.      The Passive-Aggressive Face of anger. This style of anger expression withholds praise, attention, and affection. The person wearing the passive-aggressive face of anger intentionally forgets to follow through with commitments and “promises.” They deny feeling angry while behaving in a way that will knowingly “get back at” and upset the other person.
2.      The Sarcastic Face of anger. This face of anger feigns humor; but, sarcasm has a cutting edge to it. It hurts. The person who uses sarcasm may reveal embarrassing information about the person with whom they are angry. Or, they may publicly humiliate the person with various sarcastic comments. The sarcastic face of anger carries a tone of voice that reveals disgust or disapproval.  If you are on the receiving end of sarcasm, you may feel hurt, embarrassed, confused, or even angry.
3.      The Cold Face of anger. The person who practices the cold face of anger simply withdraws from the other person when angry. They remove their affection, hold back intimacy, ignore attempts at interactions, and refuse to repair the relationship for a period of time. This cold face of anger also refuses to explain why they are upset. Instead, they punish the other person by shutting them out and avoiding interaction.  
4.      The Hostile Face of anger. The hostile face of anger reveals an inner intensity that boils over in a raised voiced and angry gestures. In general, people who wear the hostile face of anger appear more stressed out and impatient. They show visible signs of frustration and annoyance if others do not move fast enough or fail to meet their expectations for competence or performance.
5.      The Aggressive Face of anger. People who wear the aggressive face of anger raise their voice, becoming verbally loud and aggressive. They may curse, call the other person degrading names, and blame others for their behavior. They often have thoughts and mental images of anger that include hurting the other person somehow (even if they know this is wrong and do not engage in physically aggressive behavior). They may, however, act out their anger by hitting walls or breaking things around them. In some instances, they may resort to pushing, blocking, or hitting the other person.
As you can imagine, these faces of anger are damaging to personal relationships and family life in general. At the very least, they pound a wedge between people and result in hurt feelings. Ultimately, they destroy intimacy, devastate relationships, and crush people’s self-image. What can you think you wear one of the faces of anger described above? Here are 4 ideas to get you started.
     1.      First, admit that anger interferes with your relationships, destroys family intimacy, and hurts your spouse and children…the very people you love. Admit that the negative face of anger interferes with your goal to have family filled with joy, playfulness, security, and intimacy. The negative face of anger tears down the people in your family rather than building them up. In fact, the negative faces of anger have a long-term impact on each family member’s self-image, confidence, and future relationships.
     2.      Learn how you fuel your anger, how you contribute to its creation and escalate its negative expression. What thoughts race through your mind from the time you begin to feel just a little bit annoyed? What bodily sensations do you experience? How does your body tell you that you are beginning to get upset, annoyed, irritated, or angry? Write these thoughts and sensations down. Begin to be aware of these thoughts and sensations in your everyday interactions.  Being aware of your anger escalating thoughts and bodily sensation allows you to address them, calm them, and reduce them before you put on one of the angry faces described above.
     3.      When you begin to have the thoughts related to irritation or the bodily sensations of annoyance, take a long, deep, slow breath and look at your surroundings. Really, take a deep breath and notice what hangs on the walls in the room, what the other person is wearing, what you are wearing, and what expression the other person has on their face. Make a mental note of your surroundings while slowly release a deep breath. This will help calm the body sensations of anger, allowing you to think more clearly and respond more appropriately to the other person.
     4.      Talk…and listen. Listen for what the other person really wants to say. After you understand the other person, calmly explain your thoughts and priorities regarding the topic. This means becoming somewhat vulnerable, revealing yourself. Although this can prove difficult, it pulls people together. You will find that you grow closer with your family member this way, even in the midst of an irritating situation. 

These four brief steps begin the process of putting on a positive face of anger. A positive face of anger allows you to reveal yourself and build intimacy. If you struggle with anger in your family, I encourage you to read Taking Charge of Anger by W. Robert Nay, PhD. Dr. Nay describes the faces of anger in more detail and offers a comprehensive and effective method for learning to manage anger…an excellent investment in your family!

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