Tag Archive for stress management

Help Calm Your Stressed Child

When our children get upset, we often encourage them to “slow down” and “take a breath.” Intuitively, we know that “taking a breath” can help our children calm down, sooth themselves, just like it does for us. An experiment conducted by Jelena Obradovic, director of the Stanford SPARK Lab, revealed that teaching children to breathe deeply in an everyday setting, like a children’s museum, a public playground, or a full-day summer camp, effectively reduce their stress. One important feature of this study was the 1-minute-18-second video used to guide the children through four calming breathes and so teach them to use breathing to manage their stress.

I share this information and the teaching video with you because we want our children to learn how to effectively manage their stress and frustration. Learning to breathe deeply by “smelling a flower” before “blowing out a candle” will help. It will be a great help when your child is stressed over some upcoming situation or following some situation like:

  • preparing to get a vaccine
  • getting ready for a performance
  • getting ready for school
  • after having an argument with a friend
  • experiencing anxiety about a test or tryout or game.

In fact, learning to breathe deeply can help our children manage stress anytime it arises. I don’t know about you, but helping my children manage their stress reduces my stress as well. So, I’m going to take a breath and relax while teaching my children to breathe deeply to manage stress as well.

This Daily Experience Can Increase Your Family’s Happiness

Rather than trying to pique your interest, I’m just going to say this plainly. According to a study published in 2020, daily spiritual experiences, defined as experiences related to God as well as “transcendent feelings not related to God” (like feeling a deep inner peace or harmony), make people happier. Daily spiritual experiences also help reduce the effects of stress according to this research.

These findings are the result of monitoring 2,795 people via their phones for 2 weeks, asking them about positive and negative emotions as well as their current activity at random times throughout the time of the study.

The results go even further by suggesting that if two people experience equal amounts of stress, the one with more spiritual experiences is less likely to report depressive symptoms and “more likely to indicate feelings of flourishing.” On an individual level, a person experiences greater mental well-being on days in which they have more spiritual experiences. Why? Perhaps because spiritual experiences reduce self-centeredness and increase a sense of connection with Someone/something bigger than our selves.

Here’s the takeaway for our families. We can use this knowledge to increase well-being in our family by encouraging individual and family spiritual experiences. How can we do that?

  • Pray as a family and individually. Take a moment as a family to offer a prayer of thanksgiving before meals. Make prayer part of your family bedtime routine. This offers a time to offer prayers of gratitude, pray about difficult circumstances, and offer pray for other people.
  • Attend worship services. Worship services offer a wonderful spiritual experience for the whole family.
  • Watch for moments of awe throughout the day. When you experience a moment of awe, share that with your family. Savor moments of awe with your family as well.
  • Practice daily spiritual exercises such as meditation, mindfulness, silence, serving others, or gratitude, to name a few. Make one or more of these spiritual exercises part of your daily routine.
  • Sing together. Singing brings people into sync with one another. It can also contribute to a spiritual experience. Sing with your family.
  • Attend religious services together.

These ideas will help shape an environment in your home that is conducive to spiritual experiences for your family and for each person in your family. With those opportunities for spiritual experiences, your family will also enjoy the benefit of greater happiness.

Leisure, Productivity, & Happiness for Your Family

Leisure…free time spent on enjoyment and relaxation in an unhurried manner. How many of us would like more leisure time? I know I do. But our answer this question may change how much we enjoy leisure time: “When is the best time to enjoy leisure activities?” Many will answer by saying,” After my work is done.” That answer points to a common belief many people in our society hold. Productivity, we believe, is the ultimate goal; time is a resource we need to maximize for productivity and leisure is secondary. (Enjoy Dr. Selin Malkoc’s Tedx Talk for more.) This belief interferes with our enjoyment of personal leisure, family leisure, and even family fun. “So what?” you might ask. Well…

A series of studies completed by researchers at Ohio State University looked at how this belief about productivity and time impacts not only our ability to enjoy leisure but our mental health as well. In one study, 199 students completed a brief questionnaire assessing their beliefs about leisure time as well as measures of how much they enjoyed various leisure activities. Additional questionnaires assessed their levels of happiness, depression, anxiety, and stress. Those who believed productivity as more important than leisure and leisure a wasteful use of time, experienced less enjoyment during leisure activities. They also reported lower levels of happiness and higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. That’s not a great combination for us as individuals or for our families.

In another study, college students came to an office believing they were simply answering surveys for a study.  In the midst of the surveys, they were given a break to watch a short, funny cat video. The actual focus of the study was based on the participants’ response to this short break, a short period of leisure in the midst of work. Those who reported on the surveys that they viewed leisure as secondary to productivity enjoyed the videos less. They were not productive or useful, so they were less enjoyable…even funny, cute cat videos!

Why do I tell you this in a blog about families? Because our families and every person in our families need leisure time.  Individually, leisure time helps us manage stress and supports a positive self-concept. Leisure time reduces anxiety and depression while increasing positive emotions.

In marriage, engaging in leisure time that both you and your spouse enjoy will create greater intimacy. In will lead to a greater knowledge of your spouse, a better friendship, and greater satisfaction with your relationship.

Leisure time allows children to learn and grow. It gives children time to play and interact, learning new skills as varied as negotiating with peers to how far they can safely “push” their physical limits of balance and speed. In fact, we will often see our children rise a “head taller than themselves” during some leisure activities.

Family leisure time provides the opportunity to talk and learn about one another. It creates an environment that nurtures intimacy and support. It helps us grow closer and so creates a safe haven in which to rest.

With all that in mind, don’t you want to spend a little more leisure time with your family? Here are 3 things to keep in mind so your family can enjoy the benefits of leisure time.

  • Put leisure time into your family schedule. One caveat though…don’t make a rigid leisure time schedule. Setting a firm start and end time for leisure often robs it of its fun. It makes it feel like another chore we have to fit in before the next thing on the schedule. In fact, one study showed that a scheduled leisure activity was significantly less enjoyable than an unscheduled or “roughly scheduled” one.  So, “roughly schedule” your leisure activity to start “around” and end “around” or “when we’re done.” Enjoy the free flow of your leisure activity.
  • Do not schedule another activity immediately after your leisure time. Doing so can make your leisure time feel rushed. It can interfere with your ability to truly “be in the moment” of an enjoyable leisure time…which brings us to the next bullet.
  • “Be in the moment” during your leisure time. Don’t think about the next event. And don’t give the leisure time some ulterior motive like “moving us toward the next event,” improving some skill, or “tiring the kids out.” These may all represent secondary benefits. But don’t let those interfere with the pure fun of being in the moment enjoying a fun interaction and time with your family.

The Case for Getting Together with Multiple Families

How do we regulate difficult emotions? How do we get through the hard times of life without having a “nervous breakdown”? I’m sure it will be surprised no one to know friends help us manage difficult emotions and navigate difficult times. But researchers at UCLA conducted a study that suggest our friends help us “see the problem” in a new way, even a better way than if we tried to deal with it alone.

In this study, researchers showed 120 participants a series of negative images like sad faces, angry faces, or people living in poverty. Of course, these images brought up negative emotions for the participants. In the first part of this study, participants were instructed to respond in one of three ways: 1) simply allow their natural response to the image to run its course, 2) reinterpret the image or their response in an effort to feel better, or 3) listen to a reinterpretation of the image recorded by a friend who had come with them. Both groups involving reinterpretation (groups 2 and 3) felt better, but those who heard a friend offer a reinterpretation (group 3) felt even better.

It wasn’t just the friend’s voice either. A second part of the study used the act of counting to determine if the mere sound of a friend’s voice would alleviate the negative emotions aroused by the images. One group counted to themselves. A second group listened to a friend count. Listening to a friend count was no more soothing than counting to oneself. Apparently, counting does not help us deal with negative emotions, even if a friend does it. Our friend’s voice does not help us deal with negative emotions in and of itself. No, it’s our friend’s advice and counsel that help us deal with negative emotions. (The voice of your mother, on the other hand, may be the medicine that cures what ails you.)

The takeaway message is that friends help us manage difficult emotions and navigate difficult times. Leaning into our friends increases our ability to manage difficulties. In fact, we can manage difficulties better with friends than we can alone…which brings me to families.

Getting together with other families is a great way to develop friendships. Get together for a picnic or a game night, to worship or simply to share a meal will nurture and broaden your friendships with the other family. Whatever we do when we get together with other families opens the door to building relationships and finding the support we need to navigate the difficulties of life.

I remember my parents getting together our family together with other families to play games. The adults played cards while the children played other games. Friendships developed…and those friendships helped us all through difficult times.

They say, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Maybe that sells the village a little short. Perhaps we could more appropriately say, “it takes a village to raise an emotionally healthy family.” Build your village. Enjoy time with other families.

The Superpower of a Compliment

March 1 was World Compliment Day, but I think we need a reminder of the importance of a good compliment more often than once a year. So, here’s a reminder of the superpower of a compliment. 

We all want our families to know how much we value them. And compliments make people feel valued. So, give your spouse a compliment. Give your children a compliment. Give your parent a compliment. Let them know how much you value them.

Compliments also reduce the negative effects of stress. What? A less stressful spouse? A less stressful child? A less stressful parent? All due to a simple, sincere compliment? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But it is true. Give your family a compliment.

“Yeah, but you don’t know my family. They don’t care about compliments.” Research begs to differ. Research suggests we underestimate how good a sincere compliment will make the recipient feel. Honestly, don’t you enjoy a sincere compliment? So will your spouse, your children, and your parents.

“But if I give my family a compliment every day, they’ll get tired of it. It will become meaningless.” Not so. Sincere compliments, according to research, continue to lift the recipient’s mood every time they are offered, even when offered day after day. Compliments never grow old.

Don’t reserve March 1 for complimenting your spouse, children, and parents.  Get out there and compliment them today. Your sincere compliment will boost their positive mood. It will make them more aware of their inherit value. It will help them realize how much you value them. It will deepen and strengthen your relationship with them… and isn’t that what we really want? Give it a try. Compliment your family today and tomorrow. Compliment them every day for a month and pay attention to how this impacts their behavior and your relationship with them. You’ll love the results.

Supporting Family Health X2

I don’t know about you, but I am always on the lookout for my family’s physical and mental health. Unfortunately, they do not want to hear me talking about it all the time—they refer to it as “lecturing.” You know what they do like though? They love videos of cute animals. You may think those cat videos and cutesy animal videos get old, but my wife and daughters love them. Personally, I like the funny animal videos. At any rate, their love of cute animal videos opens a door for family health. In fact, according to research, I can now help my family stay healthy by giving them just what they love—videos of cute animal.

A study completed by researchers at the University of Leeds had participants watch a 30-minute slide that included images and short videos of animals. Fifteen of the nineteen participants were scheduled to take an exam 90 minutes after watching the video. The remaining four participants were “administrative staff who declared they were feeling stressed at work.” Prior to watching the video, the participants heart rate and blood pressure were mildly elevated. After watching the images of cute animals, their heart rates dropped to normal and their blood pressure moved into the ideal range (from an average of 136/88 to 115/71).

The participants also answered 20 questions to assess their stress levels. According to their responses, anxiety levels dropped for all the participants, sometimes as much as 50%…just by watching cute animal videos.

Finally, participants themselves reported the 30-minutes spent watching the video was “relaxing,” “enjoyable,” or “distracting” from upcoming stressors.

There you have it. No need to lecture your family about health. Just send them a few videos of cute animals. They’ll love you for it and it will help reduce their stress as well as improve their heart rate and blood pressure. That’s all good, don’t you think? I’m going to give it a try.

Family Happiness is for the Birds

Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds? Creepy…but recent studies show birds play a very different role in our lives and the lives of our families. For instance, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research explored the data collected from 6,000 people living in 26 European countries and from a variety of socioeconomic levels. They discovered that the richness of bird species in their living environment was positively associated with life-satisfaction. The greater the bird species in an area, the greater life-satisfaction people in that area reported. In fact, a 10% increase in bird diversity led people to report an increase in life satisfaction equal to the life-satisfaction reported when a person experienced a 1.53 increase in their salary.

You might be thinking, “Birds? What are you talking about? That’s crazy!” I know. That was my initial thought as well. But think of the joy you feel when you see the first robin of spring. Last spring, we saw orioles in our neighborhood for the first time and it was genuinely exciting. But don’t take my word for it. Another study in 2017 involving 1,023 participants who lived in an urban setting explored the impact of vegetation cover and bird diversity on depression, anxiety, and stress. In particular, experiencing bird diversity in the afternoon decreased participants’ experience of depression, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, having 20-30% vegetation cover in an area resulted in enough bird diversity to reduce the severity of depression, anxiety, and stress. “Is it the birds or the vegetation cover?” you might ask. The researchers couldn’t say for sure. But a more recent study may shed some light on how to answer that question.

For a study completed in 2020, researchers hid speakers that played a variety of bird songs along sections of a popular hiking trail in Colorado. By using the speakers, researchers could adjust the perceived diversity of bird songs along the trail. Researchers then interviewed hikers about their experience along the trail. Those who experienced a greater diversity of bird songs reported improved well-being. They also reported feeling better about life and about their hiking experience than those who heard fewer bird songs. One of the researchers said they were “kind of flabbergasted” that only 7-10 minutes of exposure to greater bird diversity led to participants experiencing improved well-being. “Flabbergasted. ”  I like that word. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted myself.

What does this mean for your family? It means that taking the opportunity to hear bird songs offers another way to enhance your family’s happiness. Birds! Not Alfred Hitchcock’s birds, but the birds in your own community. Here are a few ideas to gather birds so you can hear their song.

  • Put some bird feeders in your yard. Include a hummingbird feeder and a finch feeder. Plant some flowers that will attract birds. Then sit down with your family and enjoy the show. Count how many different types of birds you see?
  • Take a family trip to an aviary. You’ll see birds from all over the world and get to listen to their songs. And, you can have great family fun nights at the aviary.
  • Go for a family walk or hike through a local park. Enjoy your time together in nature and listen for the birds.
  • You might even purchase a CD of bird songs or download forest sounds filled with bird songs and play it quietly in the background at home. It may not be quite the same as the outdoor experience, but…who knows?

These activities are not for the birds. They are for you and your family. Enjoy the experience and the increased life satisfaction your family will gain as well.

Feeling Negative? Pessimistic? Put on a Smile

It is easy to get caught up in the stress and turmoil of life. When we do, we begin to view the world through a negative and pessimistic lens. We might grow a little more depressed or anxious. Maybe you have felt yourself growing more negative or pessimistic in response to the stresses of life. Maybe you’ve even noticed your child, your spouse, or your parent becoming more depressed, negative, anxious, or pessimistic. If so, you also know the pain this can create. But now you can thank researchers from the University of South Australia for revealing a way to change that downward spiral. And it’s as simple as…smiling!

Researchers at the University of South Australia stimulated the facial muscles of study participants to replicate the movements of a genuine smile. They did this by having them hold a pen between their teeth. They discovered that the activation of “genuine smile muscles stimulated the person’s amygdala, which then stimulated the release of neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive outlook.”

“So what?” you might ask. Let me explain. Stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile contributed to an increased ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements. In other words, participants became less negative and less pessimistic while becoming more accepting and inviting when the muscles of a genuine smile were engaged. Previous studies have shown that stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile increases a person’s ability to overcome stress more quickly as well. Combining these studies, we discover that engaging the muscles of a genuine smile helps a person become more positive, increases our ability to recognize other people’s positive facial expressions and body movements, and increases our ability to soothe ourselves more quickly when stressed.

But what does this mean for you and your family? How can your family reap the benefits of stimulating the facial muscles of a genuine smile? After all, we can’t walk around with a pen clenched between our teeth all day. How can we use this information to help our families? Here are 3 ideas.

  1. Smile. Smile when you see your family. Let them see your pearly whites in a genuine smile. Remember, a large percentage of learning comes through observation. When you smile, your family is more likely to smile with you. In other words, smile for a happier family.
  2. Encourage your family to smile. Tell a “dad joke.” Watch a funny movie. Listen to a comedian. Play a game your children enjoy. Be silly. Have fun. Smile.
  3. If all else fails, you can always have the whole family walk around for twenty minutes clenching a pencil in their teeth

Whatever you choose, bring a smile to your face and to your family. Everyone will be glad you did.

Laughter, the Pandemic, & Your Family

First, the bad news. A study from Flinders University published in January, 2021, found that 2% of their 1,040 participants tested positive for COVID and 5% reported have a close family member or friend who tested positive for COVID. More bad news, 13.2% reported symptoms of PTSD related to COVID. That’s over I in 10 people experiencing symptoms of PTSD in response to COVID and the stress it has created in our homes and communities.

I know we have all taken precautions to remain healthy and keep our families as safe as possible during this pandemic. We have done our best to avoid “catching” COVID or letting our family members “catch it.”  We also need to do everything in our power to help our families avoid experiencing symptoms PTSD in response to COVID. How can we do that? Here are 4 ways I believe will help.

  • Laugh and encourage your family to laugh. A study published in 2020 from the University of Basel (read a review here) revealed that the more often a person laughed, the fewer symptoms of stress they experienced in response to actual stressors in their lives. So tell a joke. Watch a comedy. Remember funny family stories. Joke around. Laugh. It may be just what your family needs.
  • Manage news media and social media…do not consume it. Think of the news media as food. Do not overconsume. Do not binge. Consume only what you need to maintain a healthy life. If you begin to feel uncomfortable, like you’re getting too much, turn it off. It’s ok—actually, it’s good—to turn it off and walk away. Watching too much news media or binging on social media can increase stress. Turn on a comedy and laugh instead. (Didn’t we say that before?)
  • Talk with your children and your spouse. Numerous studies show that secure relationships buffer the impact of stress and promote health. Give your family the healing benefit of your time, your listening ear, and your relational support through these troubling times. It may help your whole family escape the risk of PTSD.
  • Participate in your faith community. Make an intentional effort to grow in your faith. Personal growth and participation in a faith community contributes to a better ability to manage stress. Involvement in personal faith and a faith community contributes to better mental health in general. Take the time to nurture your faith as a family. Participate in a local faith community, even if it is on-line right now.

Four simple practices that can help your family not become one of the 13% suffering symptoms of PTSD in response to COVID. Practices that can help your family navigate the pandemic and manage the stress in a healthy way. In fact, these four practices can help you manage stress and grow even when we are in “better times,” when the pandemic is passed. Practice them now. They’ll benefit your family forever.

Be Your Child’s Social Coach

Our teens have all kinds of coaches: sporting coaches, academic coaches (tutors), reading coaches, driving coaches (we call them instructors), and music coaches (private teachers) to name a few. The most important coach, however, is their social coach. Do you know the best person to fill the role of your teen’s social coach? You. Their parent. Parents are the most readily available person to offer social coaching. Parents know their adolescent best. Parents have years of experience in managing social situations. But, as always, there is a caveat.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology explored how parents (mothers in particular) guide (AKA, coach) their children during the transition into middle school and adolescence.  As part of the study, they measured the transitioning children’s level of arousal in response to social stressors like being bullied or teased, experienced rude peers, being harassed by peers, or having problems with a friend. The amount of social stress aroused in response to the social stress determined what type of parental “coaching” was most helpful. 

Specifically, teens who experienced minimal arousal in response to social stress benefitted most from specific advice on how to manage the situation and the challenging peer. These teens benefitted from active, engaged coping ideas specific to the situation.

On the other hand, those who experienced a high arousal in response to the social stresses inherent in peer interactions responded best to a more “hands-off” coaching style. In this style, the parent is less actively engaged and encourages more autonomy and self-reliant problem-solving. They do not offer specific advice. Instead, they ask their teen what they think about the situation. In fact, specific advice seemed to increase the teens level of stress. So, the parental coach helped their teen think about the situation and what they thought offered the best way to work through the stressor without giving direct advice.

Taken together, this study offers great advice about effectively coaching our children and teens in social situation. It starts with paying attention to how much the social situation impacts your child. Specifically, here are two pieces of advice for coaching your teen in response to social stresses.

  1. If they are just a little stressed by the situation, listen and offer specific advice. Actively participate in problem-solving. Reframe the situation. Help broaden their perspective to understand the other person’s perspective. Offer specific advice on ways to communicate and maintain boundaries that encourage respect and appropriate interactions.
  2. But if they are highly stressed by the situation, listen. Then ask about their feelings and thoughts in relation to the stressor. Validate their concern. Strive to understand their perspective. Listening and validating will help your teen calm their emotions. Ask them what they think might be the best way to respond to such situations and trust their abilities in responding.

Coaching our children through the social stresses inherent in moving toward middle school is a challenging task. However, these coaching tips can help. As you remain present and available for your children—offering a listening ear, seeking their input, and offering counsel—your teen will grow and mature into an adult who knows how to manage any social stress that arises.   

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