Tag Archive for stress management

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.   

Six Reasons to Hug Your Family

A hug is defined as the “holding or squeezing of someone tightly in one’s arms.”  But, in reality, a hug is much more than simply holding or squeezing another person. A hug is powerful. A hug can change a life. In fact, here are 6 reasons to hug your spouse, children, and parents on a regular basis.

  • Research out of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that receiving a hug on the day of a conflict contributed to feeling less negative emotion the day of the conflict and the day after the conflict. The hug also prevented the conflict from reducing positive emotion on the day of the conflict. In other words, a hug helps people feel better even after a conflict.
  • In another study involving 404 participants, hugs were found to buffer the stress caused by daily stressors and resulted in less severe symptoms when infected with a virus for the common cold. Want your loved ones to be less stressed and have fewer symptoms of illness? Give them a hug.
  • Hugs may boost heart health also. A study published in 2003 found that people who held hands with their loved one for ten minutes and then hugged them for 20 seconds (compared to those who simply rested for 10 minutes and 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure & less increase in heart rate during a public speaking assignment. In other words, physical affection, including a hug, reduces our reactivity to stresses and promotes better heart health.
  • A good 20-second hug releases oxytocin…and oxytocin counteracts stress, helps us relax, increases our level of trust, and increases our empathy and feelings of intimacy. You could say hugs release oxytocin and make us feel good.
  • Hugs also communicate affection and love to the other person. A hug communicates “You belong.” Who doesn’t like to know they belong? Everyone enjoys knowing they are loved. Communicate your love…give a hug.
  • Last, but not least, hugs feel good. You can feel the comfort and the relaxing of the muscles even as you feel the other person’s arms engulf you in a hug.

Hugs benefit our physical health, our emotional health, and our mental health. They communicate love and help people know they belong. Give your loved ones a hug today. Better yet, give them several hugs today.

Parents as Emotional Containment Pods

A teen’s life is full of emotions. They can be happy one moment and angry the next…down in the dumps one moment, then turn around, and be on top of the world.  I’m sure you’ve seen it. School and community do not provide a safe place for them to unload these emotions. Instead, our teens endure the tedious demands of teachers, authority figures, and other teens while they go through their day at school or wander through the community. They put up with annoying peers with whom they need to interact as they navigate the teen challenges of becoming their own person and learn to differentiate from their family. Amazingly, they do this all with a great deal of grace.

Then, they come home. The frustrations, angers, annoyances, hurts, sorrows, and tears of the day remain bottled up until they release them, pour them out right onto us, their emotional containment pods. Yes, as a parent we get the privilege of serving as emotional containment pods for our teens. I say privilege because they come to us, a person they consider safe and who lives with them in a place they consider safe, to let it all out. They are comfortable enough with us to let all the uncomfortable feelings roll right out of their mouth and onto us. We help them contain the mess. We help them manage the emotions and navigate the frustrations. They have given us an opportunity to support them because they trust us! Unfortunately, knowing this does not make it easier for us to manage the frustration of experiencing their emotions wash over us and fill us.  But here are some tips that might help.

  • Remind yourself that you are providing them a way to unload stress so they can “keep it together” while at school and in the community. In addition, this provides an opportunity to teach problem-solving. But, before you move into any problem solving, listen.
  • Listen. Listening will teach your children that you value them.  It also informs them that their emotions are not overwhelming to you, you can handle them. You can help them manage the emotions, contain them in a healthy way.
  • Confirm whether your child wants to vent or complain. Venting simply expresses frustration and allows the “venter” to feel better because they have been listened to and heard. If your child simply wants to vent, listen, empathize, and listen some more.  Complaining, on the other hand, conveys the message that someone else needs to fix the problem. It takes no time to look at the areas of the difficulty “I” can influence. It leaves the complainer helpless. The complainer never feels better. Complaining does not accomplish anything. If your child wants to complain, move to the next bullet.
  • Help your child learn the difference between problems over which they have influence and those they cannot solve. Help them learn where their responsibility begins and ends. Help them determine what aspects of the problem they have influence over. When they have discovered those areas of influence, help them think through a plan of response. For those areas over which they have no influence, encourage them to learn to “accept the things they cannot change.”
  • Set limits. We want to have more relationship with our children than just listening to them vent. Encourage them to tell you positive events of the day as well. Also, sometimes our teens have bad days. They are irritable and snap out at family. They punish their family for their own bad mood with cutting remarks and snarky comments. It is a fair limit to say, “You can vent, I’ll listen. You can come to me and we can problem solve. But, we will not allow you to mistreat us.”

Teen years are filled with stress and emotion. Fortunately, these emotions provide a wonderful opportunity to grow closer with your teen and guide them toward greater maturity.

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?

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