How to Help Siblings Build Great Relationships for Life

As a parent, nothing hurts you more than seeing your child hurt. Whether it’s your tween moping because she didn’t get a part in the school play or your toddler sobbing over the last piece of cake, you feel your child’s pain as if it’s your own. 

And when it’s another child who’s hurting your child…that can strain your compassion to the limit. Your neighbor’s cute toddler at the playground will transform in your mind to an evil demon the minute she hits your child in a fight over the swing. 

But when the child who’s hurting your child is also your child? You’ll never feel so torn.

Siblings can be each other’s best friends and worst enemies – often in the same day. As a parent, seeing your children fight can be overwhelming. You want to simultaneously yell at them  and hug them both forever. 

But as difficult as it is, sibling conflict is also an opportunity. Siblings know each other better than anyone else, and sibling relationships are the key place where children can build conflict resolution skills like compassion, negotiation, and compromise. Here’s how you can help them build those skills – even when you’re seeing red. 

Appreciate each child’s individuality 

A desire for parental attention is often at the heart of sibling rivalry, so giving each child your undivided attention is key to minimizing conflict between your kids. Try to schedule 1:1 time with each child, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. Let them take the lead and tell you about their interests and stories. Listening and encouraging what they have to say will promote a healthy sense of self, which can help them learn to set boundaries and manage conflict with their siblings. 

Listening to each child talk about what they care about will also help you know how you can encourage activities they’re interested in. Valuing and recognizing the interests and personality traits that make them unique will help each child feel appreciated for who they are, without comparisons to siblings. This can help you, as Mayo Clinic recommends, “respect each child’s unique needs” and parent them equally, but not identically. 

Model healthy conflict 

Parents who have partners often think it’s best to go somewhere private to solve disagreements between adults, so children don’t have to listen to arguments. But the reality is that conflict with your partner is unavoidable, and since it can happen at any time, trying to keep it private often means that children see the beginning but not the resolution. It’s probably better for kids to watch you work things out, as long as you can do that in a healthy way. One study found that teens who observed “cooperative marital conflict” had better emotional coping skills. Another study found that children whose parents demonstrated “constructive marital conflict” had more prosocial behaviors. Good conflict means being able to compromise, avoid aggression even when you’re mad, and ultimately resolve the situation – even if you never come to an agreement. 

Arguments with your partner aren’t the only opportunity to model healthy conflict resolution – disagreements between you and your kids are inevitable, too, and you can use them as opportunities. Practice staying calm even when you’re frustrated, and model what you want them to do when they fight with each other. Demonstrate “I” statements, firmly but kindly step away if you need to cool down, and be open to negotiating with them. After all, if you want them to compromise with their siblings, you might need to be willing to compromise, too! 

Let kids work it out when you can

It can be tempting to break things up quickly when your kids are fighting. But waiting to see if they can work it out will let them build conflict resolution skills. If they’re not yelling or punching each other, let conflict go for a little to see if they can solve it on their own. 

You can set them up for success by creating routines that help prevent arguments before they happen. For example, teach toddlers to take turns with toys (it’s easier than sharing, which young kids don’t understand). When your kids start to argue, pay attention to their tone and body language – that will give you a clue whether the conflict is escalating or moving toward resolution.

If you do need to step in, be a coach, not a director. Offer suggestions and tools, but let your kids take the lead, especially when working out a compromise. If the ideas come from them, they’ll be more satisfied with the outcome – and they’ll have more skills for the next disagreement. 

Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to ruin relationships. Rather than preventing sibling rivalry, work on teaching your kids skills that will enable them to build better relationships not just with each other, but with friends, teachers, and even you.

Giving Teens Responsibility

In our last post we looked at the benefits of including our young children in the household chores and talked about how children are happier and develop greater self-esteem when they make a meaningful contribution to the family. This week, we look at what happens when kids enter their teen years. It’s an opportunity to meet their need for independence with expanded responsibilities beyond their contributions to household chores.

As our children become teenagers a big part of their attention shifts to their relationships with their friends and figuring out their place in the wider world. 

But they are still a big part of the family and continue to need parental guidance and support. Their bodies have changed and they may have reached their full adult size, but their brains aren’t finished developing.  They still need us while insisting they don’t.

This combination of an adult-sized body, the importance of relationships outside the family, and all of the time and attention needed to figure out what their adult life will look like can make for challenging times.

One way to ease the strain is to support their growing need for independence by expanding their responsibilities. They can still be expected to contribute to household chores, but we can help them grow toward adulthood by giving them some added adult responsibilities and more opportunities to make their own decisions. 

Growing toward Adulthood

Expanded responsibilities can mean that young teens take on more of the meal planning and grocery shopping. A few summers back, when we had three tweens/teens at home, we implemented a dinner rotation for meal prep. Each person in the family was assigned one night a week where they were responsible for preparing dinner for the family. Each Saturday we would get together to plan the meals for the week. Each teen decided what they wanted to cook. The ingredients they needed for their meal got added to the grocery list. I did the shopping, since none of them were driving yet, but if you have a teen who is driving, they can take on this responsibility too.

Post A Chore List

Another way to support this time of transition in your teens life is to take a step back from reminding them about their chore responsibilities. When you’ve reached agreement about what they will be responsible for, post the list of who is doing what where it will be seen often. The front of the refrigerator is always a great location for capturing a teens attention. 

You can also offer monetary incentive for taking care of their assigned chores in a timely fashion, or offer to pay for help that is above and beyond their assigned contributions. For example, making their bed and keeping their room clean might be a part of contributing as a family member, while doing yard work or watching younger siblings are responsibilities that you will pay them for.

Amy Morin, at verywellfamily.com suggests you let your expectations be known, clear, and reasonable. Assign chores ahead of time, be flexible about when they get done, and establish clear consequences so they know what will happen if they don’t do their chores. Now is the time to step back a little and let them take responsibility for time management and meeting expectations without reminders.

Help Them Set Up A Budget

If you reward them with money or they have an allowance, help them set up a budget. Have them write down what they want and need regularly so they can keep up with it. Older teens who have part-time jobs after school can assume more responsibility for paying for their own things, such as their phone bill or social activities. 

Show them how to track their money and keep a ledger. Some banks even offer budgeting tools in their online apps. 

If you haven’t helped them open a bank account yet, now is the time to do it. Helping them establish good money management skills while they are still at home will set them on the path to success as independent adults. 

Expanding Responsibilities for Older Kids

Here are just a few ways you can support your tweens and teens growing desire for independence:

 

10-13 Years: Pre-teens can help with everything smaller kids can help with in addition to sweeping and mopping the floors, helping out with yard work, cleaning out the car, and helping to make meals.

13-16 Years:  Young teenagers can take responsibility for all their personal hygiene and laundry, can help with or make meals, create meal plans and grocery lists. They can be responsible for yard work on their own and can watch younger siblings.

16-18 Years: Our older teenagers who have a job can be responsible for their own money and budget. While their chores at home might not change much, they are now in a position to begin paying for some of their own things – the cell phone, clothes, the costs associated with activities they do with their friends. 

With a love and guidance, helping our teens take on more responsibilities as they reach high school graduation prepares them for a lifetime as independent and responsible adults. 

Giving kids responsibility

Research shows that having kids share in the responsibility of household chores can increase self-esteem, build their ability to delay gratification, and equip them to deal with frustration.  By helping out around the house, children learn valuable life skills, gain confidence, and build self-reliance, which can lead to greater success at school, work, and in relationships.

Says one blogger on children and chores, “Knowing that they contribute and are productive members of the family gives children an important sense of self-worth and belonging. Also, self-mastery (being able to do things for themselves) builds stronger self-esteem and leads to a more capable young person.”

They may grumble when asked to do chores, but research tells us that children actually feel happier when they make a meaningful contribution to the family.

Make it Easy for Kids to Help

The earlier you include kids in household chores, the less resistance you will get and the easier it is to keep them helping willingly. By creating a consistent routine that includes everyone pitching in, children are more likely to contribute without complaint.

Routines keep things predictable. Kids and grown-ups find comfort in knowing what to expect. Creating routines that include chores also reduces the likelihood of pushback when they are reminded of the things they are expected to help with.

Another way to make it easier for kids to help is by decluttering. Too much on a shelf, or stuffed into a drawer or a closet, can be overwhelming. When everything has its own place on the shelf, or in the drawer, and there is ample space between things, picking up and putting away is less stressful and easier to do. 

For the very youngest helpers, some preparation on our part will help them be successful even as they are still learning.  For example, even a toddler can be responsible for feeding the cat if we prepare a small container that holds the cat’s next meal in advance. Placing the pre-measured food on a low shelf means the toddler can feed the cat by taking the container to the cat’s dish and pouring the food into the dish.  

Two-year-old tantrums are often the result of frustration at not being allowed to do something they feel completely capable of accomplishing. 

True, we are all busy and sometimes it is hard to find the patience for waiting while they practice new skills. It is so much easier, and faster, to just do it ourselves.  We have years of experience putting on shoes and we know we will be out the door so much more quickly if we simply scoop up the child and the shoes and put their shoes on their feet for them. 

Waiting for our toddler, who is just learning to coordinate the movement of their hands with the movement of their feet will take more time. 

But planning ahead to allow more time – and having the patience to let them try – will result in a happier toddler as they experience the satisfaction of accomplishment while building their self-care skills with each new effort.

Children as young as 18 months can help pull clean clothes out of the dryer and into a laundry basket. With a little direction, toddlers can help put linens on a closet shelf, socks into their sock drawer, and dish towels into a kitchen drawer.

As children are learning to perform their chores, doing them together allows them to learn from you. Working as a team over time, the child can watch you perform a new chore, then begin to help with that task, and eventually will have had sufficient practice to take responsibility to do it independently. 

What can they help with? 

Here are just a few of the things that kids can be responsible for:

2-3 Years: Our youngest children can help us with our regular household chores. As we straighten a room, they can take a piece of trash to the wastebasket, use a dust cloth to help dust tabletops, take dirty clothes to the laundry hamper, help pull clean clothes out of the dryer, and learn to fold washcloths.

4-5 Years: Our older preschoolers can help with all of the above and they can take responsibility for setting and clearing the table, making their bed, matching and folding socks, wiping up spills, using a hand-held vacuum, preparing a simple snack, and helping with meal prep.

6-7 Years: All of the above, as well as emptying the dishwasher, putting groceries away, sweeping and vacuuming floors, dusting, folding towels, watering plants, raking leaves.

8-10 Years: Empty the trash, wash dishes, pack lunches, hang and fold clean clothes, weed the garden.

With a little planning, a lot of patience, and loads of encouragement we can help our kids on their road to independence with some well-timed responsibilities throughout their childhood.

Helping children understand and handle their emotions

Supporting children as they learn about emotions and develop the skills to manage strong feelings is part of helping them grow.

In a recent article assessing the impact of this year of remote education, social-emotional learning was cited as likely to be the area where children show the biggest deficit. They noted that what children will most need to learn or re-learn when they return to school buildings is how to be in a classroom filled with other children.

Social-emotional learning focuses on what we learn while being part of a social group. For children, it includes things like learning to let someone else go first, to apologize when you hurt someone’s feelings, to offer help when someone is struggling, and manage all the emotions that come with not having everything go exactly as you hoped. 

Emotions are a big deal.

Kidshealth.org offers these basic facts about emotions:

  • Emotions come and go. Most of us feel many different emotions throughout the day. Some last just a few seconds. Others might linger to become a mood.
  • Emotions can be mild, intense, or anywhere in between. The intensity of an emotion can depend on the situation and on the person.
  • There are no good or bad emotions, but there are good and bad ways of expressing (or acting on) emotions. Learning how to express emotions in acceptable ways is a separate skill — managing emotions — that is built on a foundation of being able to understand emotions.

Recognizing and managing emotions 

We all recognize when an event affects how we feel. Depending on our temperament and other things affecting us at the moment, our emotional reactions can vary wildly. Something that caused little emotional reaction last week can send us over the edge today. 

Scientists used to think there were just 6 basic emotions, but a study published in 2017 suggests there is evidence for 27 distinct varieties of reported emotional experience.

Why is it so hard to handle big emotions?

A big emotion sends many different chemicals coursing through our bodies. These chemicals trigger a physical reaction within us. This physical reaction can make us uncomfortable physically. It then triggers thoughts and reactions in our brain. The part of the brain responsible for triggering emotions, the amygdala, is the most primitive part of the brain. It is responsible for keeping us safe by triggering our ‘flight or fight’ response to perceived danger. It takes no conscious thought to start the cascade of feelings when the amygdala is triggered.

Because it happens outside of our consciousness, we are often already fully engulfed in an emotion when the conscious part of our brain – our prefrontal cortex – takes note. Despite our best intentions, without self-regulation our emotions can lead us to say or do things we might later regret.

 

How do we help children who are still learning to self-regulate feel big emotions?

 

Says Karen Young, “Self-regulation is NOT about ‘not feeling’. Locking feelings away can cause as much trouble as any outburst. There is nothing wrong with having big feelings. All feelings are valid and it’s okay for kids to feel whatever they feel. What’s important is how those feelings are managed. The key is to nurture children towards being able to acknowledge and express what they’re feeling, without causing breakage to themselves, their friendships, or other people.”

Helping children identify their feelings and express what they are feeling is the first step. The brain is still developing in young children. Our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until adulthood. Every big feeling is an opportunity to further develop self-regulation skills.

We can acknowledge the big feelings our children are having and help them name what they are feeling. If we take the time to let them work their way through it, without taking over, we give them the space they need to work on self-regulation and learn how to self-soothe.

For more practical tips on helping children handle their big emotions, join Dr. Aoife Magee for an online workshop on Nurturing Emotions, Wednesday, March 3rd, from 6:30 – 8:30 pm. Participants will learn the 5 steps of Emotion Coaching and take away practical strategies for aligning different parenting or teaching styles with emotion coaching for the children in their lives.

The workshop is free for parents and offers 3 hours of UGB/Set 2 professional development credit for childcare practitioners. To register email poel@linnbenton.edu or call 541-917-4899. 

Make Heart Health Part of Your Self-Care Routine

February is American Heart Month, a chance to celebrate both our affection for others with valentine’s and chocolate – and a time to recognize that taking care of our hearts is taking care of our whole self. The National Institute of Health, together with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, offers these tips for keeping our hearts healthy all year long.

Devoting a little time every day to care for yourself can go a long way toward protecting the health of your heart. Simple self-care, such as taking a moment to de-stress, giving yourself time to move more, preparing healthier meals, and not cheating on sleep can all benefit your heart.

And that’s a good thing, because heart disease is largely preventable and focusing on improving your heart health has never been more important. Heart disease is a leading cause of death for women and men in the United States, and many Americans remain at risk of getting it, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). People with poor cardiovascular health are also at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. 

“Studies show self-care routines, such as taking a daily walk and keeping doctor’s appointments, help us keep our blood pressure in the healthy range and reduce our risk of heart disease and stroke,” said David Goff, M.D., NHLBI’s director of cardiovascular sciences.  

It may be easier than you think to “put your heart” into your daily routine. Each Sunday, look at your week’s schedule and carve out 30 minutes daily for heart-healthy practices. Take an online yoga class, prepare a heart-healthy recipe, schedule your bedtime to get at least seven hours of sleep, or make a medication checklist. Then seek out support from others, even if it’s online or via a phone call, to help you stick to your goals.

Here are few self-care tips to try every day to make your heart a priority:

Self-Care Sunday

Find a moment of serenity every Sunday. Spend some quality time on yourself. 

Mindful Monday

Be mindful about your health and regularly monitor your blood pressure or blood sugar if needed. Keep an eye on your weight to make sure it stays within or moves toward a healthy range. Being aware of your health status is a key to making positive change.

Tasty Tuesday

Choose how you want to approach eating healthier. Start small by pepping up your meals with a fresh herb or spice as a salt substitute. Get adventurous and prepare a simple, new, heart-healthy recipe. Or go big by trying a different way of eating, such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan, which is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure. DASH is flexible and balanced, and it includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, lean meats, beans, nuts, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. 

  Wellness Wednesday

Don’t waffle on your wellness. Move more, eat a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried, make a plan to quit smoking or vaping, or learn the signs of a heart attack or stroke. You could be having a heart attack if you have chest and upper body pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, or lightheadedness. You might be having a stroke if you have numbness in the face, arm, or leg; confusion; trouble talking or seeing; dizziness; or a severe headache. 

Treat Yourself Thursday 

Treats can be healthy. Try making a dessert with fresh fruit and yogurt. Then stretch your imagination beyond food. Host a family dance party, take a few minutes to sit still and meditate, go for a long walk, or watch a funny show. Laughter is healthy. Whatever you do, find a way to spend some quality time on yourself. 

Follow Friday

Follow inspiring people and pages on social media, or text a friend to help you stick to your self-care goals. Remember to take care of your mental health, too. Two of the main hurdles to self-care are depression and a lack of confidence, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. If your mental health gets between you and your fabulous self, take action to show your heart some love. Reach out to family and friends for support, or talk to a qualified mental health provider. 

Selfie Saturday

Inspire others to take care of their own hearts. Talk about your self-care routine with loved ones or share a selfie on your social media platforms. Having social support and personal networks can make it easier to get regular physical activity, eat nutritious foods, reach a healthy weight, and quit smoking. 

 

Learn more about heart health and heart-healthy activities in your community, and see what others are doing for their heart health, at nhlbi.nih.gov/ourhearts or follow #OurHearts on social media.

Nurturing Connection

Connection with others and a sense of belonging is a basic human need. Like air to breathe and food to eat, being in relationships with other people is part of being human. Feeling connected to others contributes to both our mental and physical health.

Brene Brown, in a conversation with Psychology Today said this of the importance of social connection, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” 

The social distancing required through the pandemic has been hard on us all, both emotionally and physically. Studies have shown that isolation and lack of social connection can be as bad for our health as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.

It’s been hard. But there is hope. Says Dr. Emma Seppala, “Fear not! The good news is that social connection has more to do with your subjective feeling of connection than your number of friends. You could have 1,000 friends and still feel low in connection (thus the expression loneliness in a crowd) but you could also have no close friends or relatives but still feel very connected from within.

There are ways, even now, to nurture connection with others and support our children as they learn how to build social connections. 

Says Rebecca Thompson, in her book Nurturing Connection,Nurturing our relationship with our children is the heart and soul of consciously parenting. Nurturing relationships, once they are established, is really an art. It is about remembering that our children’s need for connection is a primary factor in most of their behavior. It is about recognizing that, in every parenting situation, we have choices about how we respond to our children and their behaviors. It is about seeing every parenting situation as an opportunity to create connection or disconnection.”

Nurturing connection is the topic of our next Nurturing Series workshop. We will explore how our early experiences shaped the way we relate to others and learn some effective strategies for helping children develop skills for deeper connections with others.

Family is the first experience children have with forming connections. As they enter school, peers and other adults offer more opportunities for connection. Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University, studied social learning theory and looked at how children learn in social environments. Social Learning Theory says that by observing others and the consequences of their actions, children form opinions that affect their own choices. Children who observe others being rewarded for behavior are more likely to engage in that same behavior. Children who observe others being punished for behavior are less likely to exhibit the same behavior. Strong, supportive social connections provide the foundation for social learning.

To learn more about helping children develop skills for nurturing connection, join Dr. Aoife Magee online Wednesday, February 3rd at 6:30 pm. In this 2-hour virtual workshop, we will explore a strengths-based approach for nurturing connection with our children and supporting diverse families in our communities. To register, email poel@linnbenton.edu or call: 541-917-4899.

 

Presence and Mindfulness: an antidote to stress

In our previous posts, we looked at the impact stress has on us and some strategies for deactivating stress triggers. This week we will focus on presence and mindfulness as additional tools to overcome the impact of stress on our bodies and in our lives. 

What is ‘Presence and Mindfulness’?

Presence is simply making a conscious effort to be present in the current moment. When we are present in the moment, we set aside planning (thinking about the future) and analysis (evaluating the past) and focus on the here and now. We bring our awareness to what is happening right now.

Mindfulness is the awareness. The conscious noticing of feelings and physical sensations. It is also the detached observation of our reaction to those feelings and sensations.

“Mindfulness is the art of bringing your awareness into the present moment and an effective tool for changing your level of stress in the right now,” says Emily Greenberg. “Counting your breaths, visualizing, imagining a waterfall, or listening to guided audio are all versions of mindfulness.” (Stress Less Accomplish More, pg4)

The Mayo Clinic calls mindfulness a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. “Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and 

help reduce stress.”

They go on to say, “Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking negative or random thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking. 

Dr. Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain (p57), calls mindfulness a ‘brain skill’ that “can have far-reaching beneficial effects, not only transforming brain neurons but improving immunity, health, life, and relationship satisfaction.

Calm your emotions

Taking the time to be present and mindful has direct benefits on emotional health. When we make the effort to mentally push ‘pause’, we give our bodies time to process the effects of an emotion. Dr. Joan Rosenberg, in 90 Seconds to a Life You Love, says it takes about 90 seconds for the physical effects of an emotional reaction to move through our bodies. Consciously observing those effects and waiting for them to pass gives our mind the opportunity to think about what we are feeling. This conscious awareness often has a calming effect and allows us to respond from a balanced, thoughtful perspective.

Make wiser choices

When feeling stress, “riding the wave” of the emotions we are feeling with mindful awareness helps us make wiser choices about how we react. In a recent conversation, a friend said something that initially irritated me, triggering a feeling of anger and defensiveness. But instead of preparing a rebuttal, I took the time to notice how the comment made me feel. I noticed tension in my stomach and how shallow my breath had become. I noticed I was angry about what had been said. All the while they continued to talk and in the intervening seconds I noticed that the original comment was not headed in the direction I thought. In the moments that passed between noticing my irritation and waiting for that reaction to pass, the tension in my body also eased. I was able to respond with a simple and calm acknowledgment, rather than the defensive rebuttal that initially sprang into my brain.

Feel more in control

Presence and mindfulness also give you the tools to feel more in control of your responses. While we cannot control emotions, when we are practicing presence and being mindful we can more deliberately choose how we react to the emotions that we feel. We can’t stop our amygdala from responding to the things that our senses notice. Our senses constantly scan our environment, providing important information that keeps us safe and away from danger. The hormones released by the amygdala will trigger sensations that provide info

rmation to the conscious part of our brain. Practicing mindfulness allows us to engage this conscious part of the brain when choosing our reactions to what we are sensing and feeling.

Achieve personal and psychological growth

Dr. Leah Lagos subtitled her book Heart Breath Mind: Train your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success. T

he breath practices she teaches have an effect on heart rate variability. She says, “a body in rest-and-digest mode, with high heart rate variability, produces a more ordered and stable heart pattern, sending input to the brain that facilitates cognitive functioning and reinforces positive feelings as well as emotional regulation.” 

Other advocates of mindfulness and mediation also extol the virtues of meditation for not only reducing anxiety but improving our ability to reach our personal and professional goals.

Says Dr. Richard Davidson, “by sitting and mindfully breathing for ten minutes a day, in as little as eight weeks you strengthen the part of the prefrontal cortex involved in generating positive feelings and diminish the part that generates negative ones.”

As this new year begins and resolutions are made, resolve to incorporate a daily practice of presence and mindfulness as an antidote to the impact of stress on mind and body.

Deactivating Stress Triggers

This is Part Two of our three-part series on stress and mindfulness. 

In our last post, we looked at the impact stress has on our minds and bodies. We talked about the overabundance of chemicals produced by our body in response to stress. We identified the impact of those excess chemicals on our physical, mental, and emotional health. 

A woman sitting on the ground is silhouetted by the setting sun. In this post, we will look at ways to help our minds and bodies manage by deactivating those stress triggers and minimizing those impacts. 

Says Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind. “In order to learn how to let go of stress, it’s advantageous to have a basic understanding of how it works in the body,” 

“When we detect a change in the environment that commands our attention, our body releases a precisely choreographed cascade of hormones designed to prepare us for a reaction. Our breathing and heart rate quicken, we may feel our muscles tense in preparation to fight or flee. Our body is shifting from a sympathetic-dominant state in order to prepare us for survival.”

The human stress response was well-developed eons ago when early man navigated in a wilderness of wild beasts. The problem today isn’t that our bodies react, but that usually what we are reacting to isn’t a saber tooth tiger about to pounce. 

Handling this disconnect, between the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and the modern-day events that stimulate the amygdala’s ‘fight or flight’ response, requires some intervention.

Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain, says, “Having a stress-proof brain means being able to slow things down, ground yourself, and overcome feelings of anxiety and helplessness that may have their roots in past, difficult experiences. It means being CEO of your own brain rather than letting your amygdala be in charge.” (p210) 

Stress experts like Drs. Greenberg and Lagos offer the following strategies for mindfully handling our responses to the emotions triggered by stress.

Still life of a bottle of olive oil surrounded by two red tomatoes, a sprig of green rosemary and a garlic bulb.Diet and Exercise

Being “CEO” of your brain begins with taking care of it and the rest of your body. Eating healthy foods, walking, and making sure you are moving and using your muscles in a healthy way all support an environment for optimum mental and physical health. Feeling tense? Take a brisk walk to boost endorphins and help your body regulate those stress hormones. Plan your meals and eat them on a regular schedule. This will help make sure you are eating fresh fruit, whole grains, and proteins – all helpful in stress-proofing your brain. It’s also helpful to be aware of foods that trigger overeating. For example, sugary foods can cause blood sugars to spike, then crash, leading to overeating.

Slow down, Positive thinking

When we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to shift into overdrive. But the acceleration adds to our anxiety, as we try to handle the stress and also the anxiety about the stress. To avoid stressing about stress, downshift instead of accelerating. Take a few moments to slow down and regroup. Allow your body to process your current emotion before taking action. Using the power of positive thinking can also help lower our anxiety, since pessimistic thoughts are more likely to cause anxiety. Try replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with more positive – or even more neutral – alternatives. When you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts like, “I never get this right,” try changing that thought to, “This time I didn’t get this right, but next time I will.”

Calming your amygdala

Another strategy for handling difficult emotions is to practice calming the amygdala with deep belly breathing and regular mindfulness meditation. 

Michigan Medicine, at the University of Michigan, offers these instructions for mindful belly breathing:

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

Breath awareness 

Mindful breathing exercises can also help disrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response of the amygdala. Emily Fletcher, in Stress Less, Accomplish More, recommends the 2x Breath. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 2 and out through your mouth to the count of 4. Repeat a few times. (While walking if you feel really overloaded.) When you are calmer, find a comfortable chair and continue mindful breathing for a few more minutes, extending inhales to the count of 3 and then 4, with exhales twice as long. 

Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind, encourages a twice-daily practice of 20 minutes of mindful breathing. She recommends heart rate monitors to track the benefits of these daily breathing exercises.

Presence and Mindfulness

Overriding the primitive reactions of our amygdala takes awareness. By slowing down we give ourselves the opportunity to experience our feelings without reacting to them mindlessly. By using simple techniques such as breath awareness and deep breathing, we help our bodies balance the chemical responses to stress. By bringing conscious awareness to the physical effects of our reactions to stressful events, we ground ourselves, keeping fear-based responses at bay, making us better able to respond with curiosity and creativity. 

Our amygdala, that most primitive part of our brain, engages without conscious thought. Finding ways to engage the more evolved parts of our brain when handling stress allows us to make conscious choices about our reactions. Next time we will delve more deeply into using presence and mindfulness as an antidote to stress.

Stress and Mindfulness

Today we begin a 3-part series on stress.  In this series we will begin by looking at the impact stress has on our well being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then we’ll take a look at some tried and true methods for deactivating stress triggers. Finally, we will delve more deeply into presence and mindfulness as antidotes to stress.

What is “stress”?

We hear and talk a lot about stress. But what exactly is “stress”? Emily Fletcher, in her book Stress Less, Accomplish More, says stress is not a thing, it’s a reaction. She describes stress as the negative impact of the demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. (p45)

Stress is not the responsibilities themselves, but is a reaction to the demands those responsibilities put on us. Ms. Fletcher asserts, “And that is what stress is: your reaction to the stuff, not the stuff itself.”

That’s good news when we’re feeling overwhelmed.  In our next post we’ll look at ways to manage our reactions and reduce the negative impact. But first, let’s look at how our feelings of overwhelm impact us.

The impact of stress

When we are stressed, our bodies produce a variety of chemicals that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. These include cortisol, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals are both beneficial and problematic.  In the right quantities, these chemicals coursing through our bodies help us. Serotonin, for example, helps aid digestion, heal wounds, and regulate anxiety. But excess serotonin can lead to diarrhea, headaches, and confusion. 

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. Among them: weight gain, overreaction to petty annoyances, difficulty making decisions, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

We may have trouble sleeping, experience headaches, overeat, or have neck or back pain. Stress also affects us mentally.  We may find it difficult to concentrate, hard to make a decision, or find ourselves less productive at work.  Emotionally, we may feel increased anxiety, worry more, feel frustrated or angry more often, and approach others with hostility. Depression and mood swings are also telltale signs of the effects of stress on us emotionally.

Statistics on the impact of stress

Stress takes a toll on all aspects of our life. At work, stress leads to distraction, feelings of isolation, absenteeism, and fear of job loss. At home, stress affects our relationships with our families and roommates, diminishes our enjoyment of everyday pleasures, and can lead to depression and addiction.

According to a study by the Mental Health Institute, 81% of respondents said workplace stress affects their relationships with friends and family. 53% of respondents missed 6 or more days of work a month due to workplace stress. 63% of respondents reported that their workplace stress resulted in a significant impact on their mental and behavioral health. 

Benefits of understanding the impact of stress

 

Understanding the impact of stress is the first step to minimizing those impacts. Recognizing the demands that are causing our stress responses, then taking action to change our response can have lasting benefits  and lead to a decrease in the negative impact on our brains, bodies, and mental health.

The good news is we can tame the beast. Each of us carries within us the ability to change how we respond.

We all have demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. But we also have the tools available to manage those demands and lessen the impact of stressors. 

In our next post we will look at ways to deactivate our stress triggers – action we can take to reduce the impact of a chronic stress response. If stress is the reaction to the stuff of our lives, altering how we react can go a long way to reducing the negative impacts of stress. We will look at increasing cognitive flexibility, the power of positive thinking, and the impact of diet and lifestyle on our stress levels.  Until then, when your body is telling you it’s all too much, stop a minute and take a few slow, deep breaths.

The Benefits of Gratitude

November is National Gratitude Month and what better time to think about being thankful than the weeks leading up to our national holiday of Thanksgiving? Even in a year as crazy as 2020, the mental-health benefits of gratitude are there for the taking.

Being grateful takes little time and no money, but can enhance mental health, improve sleep, contribute to better physical health, and enrich social connections. Amy Morin, in a recent Forbes article, shares 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude: improved physical health, improved psychological health, better relationships, enhanced empathy, better sleep, improved self-esteem, and increased mental strength.

With so many good reasons to be grateful, here are some time-proven ways to increase your gratitude quotient, not just during the Thanksgiving holiday, but all year long.

                        “Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness. It’s the spark that lights a fire of joy in your soul.” 

 -Amy Collette, author of the Gratitude Connection

Slow down

When we are in a hurry, our bodies respond by increasing the production of stress chemicals to help us keep up. These chemicals, which stimulate our ‘fight or flight’ response, increase anxiety. It’s hard to be grateful when we’re anxious. Slowing down, just enough to reduce the anxious response in our bodies, opens the door for gratitude. Reducing stress hormones also improves our physical and mental health. Win, win!

Be mindful

Like slowing down, being mindful helps us be more consciously aware of our environment, those people and things around us. When we pause and notice, we create space for gratitude. Our gratitude doesn’t have to dwell on just big and wonderful things. Noticing our small daily successes and being grateful for them brings the same benefits as celebrating big wins. Opportunities for gratitude can also encompass lessons learned in coping with difficulties. Have you learned new things, or gained new coping skills, through a hard situation? Celebrate that growth with gratitude.

Appreciate the little things

Like gratitude found in personal growth, there is gratitude to be found in the every day as well. Yesterday the rain let up just as I left the house to walk the dog. The next downpour held off until after I was back inside. Finding gratitude in that small win improved my mood for the rest of the afternoon. When we take time to notice the little things in our life that we have to be thankful for, it helps develop a practice of gratitude that contributes to our well being.

Look for happiness

Sometimes we have to work a little harder to find gratitude and happiness. Not feeling particularly happy about our social isolation? Me either. But over these last few months, I’ve spent some time with a hobby that had been packed away for lack of time. I am happy to have the knitting needles back in my hands. And for that I am grateful. Happiness in one area can spill over and help us feel gratitude in other areas of our life. Have you picked up a new hobby this year?

There has been a lot to be anxious about this year. Acknowledging our anxiety is important to our mental health. Acknowledging our emotional responses to all of the hard things we are experiencing builds resilience and improves mental health. On the other side of that emotion, gratitude can help balance the scales. 

When we are faced with a day where it feels like everything has gone wrong, taking a little time to also acknowledge what’s gone right – even if it’s the tiniest of moments – can help us feel just a tiny bit happier. 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.