Stress Management in 2020 and Beyond Part 1
Parents are role models for their children when it comes to teaching life skills, including how to cope with stressful situations. Part 1 of stress management addresses what you can do to help manage the increase in stress that is affecting many people these days. Stress Management – Part 2 consists of how to help create more peace within the family.
#1- Promote Physical Health. Prioritize getting enough sleep and help your children get adequate sleep. Preschool children (3-5 years old) need 10-13 hours; School aged children (6-13 years old) need 9-11 hours; Teenagers (14-17 years old) need 8-10 hours; and Adults (18+ years old) need 7-9 hours. No one can think clearly, learn, and process their emotions properly when sleep deprived.
Eat a healthy, whole foods diet as much as possible. Limit processed foods, sugar, artificial dyes and chemicals to the best of your ability as these do not support your health.
Spending time outdoors in nature has been shown to be an antidote for stress, promoting feelings of calm, and improving both sleep and mood. The goal for this is 2 hours outdoors per week.
Get regular physical activity if possible. There are multiple health benefits from exercise in addition to benefits for sleep, mood, anxiety, and stress management. Exercise has also been shown to have cognitive benefits for attention and memory. Even if you are not able to do the recommended 150 minutes per week (recommendation for adults- see CDC website), any increase in physical activity is still helpful, even if only 10-15 minutes of walking 3-5 days per week.
These are the basics even if they sound boring.
#2- Focus On What You CAN Control. There is so much we can’t control these days (our homes, work demands or lack thereof, our kids’ school and social opportunities, aging relatives, local issues, national issues, world issues, the weather…) but rather than ruminate on these, focus on what is in your locus of control- wear a mask, wash your hands, stay distanced from others, eat healthy foods, exercise, get fresh air, and get enough sleep. Show your children that taking care of oneself is important.
You can control some of the negativity entering your life. First, decide if you want to have the goal of feeling calm and having a lower stress level. If so, then avoid or limit leisure activities that do not make you feel calm and happy as these work against this goal. Turn off the news, get off social media, stop arguing politics, don’t read continual updates about the pandemic. Find a few trusted sites for information and plan to look at the news or check social media a few times per day if you must, but be aware of how this information is affecting your mental health or interfering with sleep and modify the amount of media you consume accordingly.
You can also control your thoughts.
#3- Watch Your Thoughts. There is no such thing as perfection. Forgive yourself, don’t compare yourself to others and practice gratitude every day- more on this below. Are you constantly criticizing yourself with your internal monologue? Catch yourself doing this and tell yourself something nice instead. Take the word “should” out of your vocabulary! It implies guilt and/or failure. Replace it with “next time I will…” Thoughts are very powerful as they dictate our actions and feelings. Be nice to yourself.
#4- Connect With Others. Nurture relationships by reaching out to friends and families by phone, email, text or even an actual letter. Now that you know how to use Zoom (or other video call services), set up a meeting with friends. Talk to people you care about. Practice kindness to others. Leave your spouse or partner a nice note. Help someone else. Compliment others. Kindness can decrease stress hormone levels and improve mood.
#5- Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is being fully aware of the present moment (of thoughts, feelings, behaviors) without judgement or attention to the past or future. Practicing mindfulness can help direct your attention away from all the time spent planning, problem-solving or worrying that increases stress. Take a moment to stop and slow down, to experience life with all five senses. Mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time.
Mindful meditation has shown to be helpful for stress, anxiety, depression and sleep, among having other physiologic benefits. Take time to close your eyes and focus on your breathing and what you are sensing and feeling. You do not need to be sitting for meditation, you can be laying down or walking (I would recommend keeping your eyes open for the walking meditation, however.)
Where to start? There are many good apps available to help with learning and developing these skills. Consider the following: Insight Timer is free. Calm, Headspace, 21-day Meditation Experience, and Ten Percent Happier all have free trial periods. More information and videos available at mindful.org.
#6- Self Care. Do something you find relaxing. This can be deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or yoga. Headspace.com has examples of these techniques. It can be reading a good book, watching a TV show, going for a walk, listening to music, or focusing on a hobby. The goal is to get out of your own head and do something enjoyable.
Along the lines of self-care is to remember not to overextend yourself. Don’t feel like you have to say “yes” every time you are asked to do something.
#7- Gratitude. This practice has been associated with an improvement in mood. Keep a gratitude journal and write down the things for which you are grateful on a daily basis. Tell those you love that you are grateful for them. Encourage them to express their gratitude and appreciation as well.
#8- Use Humor. Humor can protect against symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can reduce stress and help with sleep. Laughter itself is a stress-reliever, causing a release of endorphins and has long-term benefits for improving your immune system. Focus on positive humor- making jokes others will appreciate and finding humor in your own daily life to make yourself feel better (as opposed to negative humor such as ridiculing someone else or putting yourself down). Watch or read something funny, look for jokes, post comics or memes you find funny. There are times of high stress when I find it better to get my news from SNL Weekend Update and The Onion- you can still figure out what is going on through the parody interpretation. Go to YouTube and watch one of the brilliant Coronavirus parodies of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (is this a fever? Or just allergies? Caught in a lockdown, no escape from the family…)