Healthy Heart – body and emotions

February is American Heart Health Month, designed to bring awareness to the importance of heart health and encourage healthy habits to reduce the risk of heart disease.

What better time to raise awareness of heart health than the month we celebrate love with Valentines, hearts, and flowers.

Healthy Eating for a Happy Heart

One way to help keep our hearts healthy is with healthy eating habits.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has designed a heart-healthy eating plan called DASH: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The secret to this eating plan, says Charlotte Pratt, Ph.D., M.S., R.D., a nutrition expert at NHLBI,  is “eating nutrient-dense foods and meals that are lower in sodium and saturated fat, rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and legumes.”

DASH includes recipes that are easy to make and family-friendly. Some of the recipes feature healthy versions of comfort foods, such as oven-baked french fries, chicken chile stew, and sweet potato custard. They include traditional African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Vietnamese, Latino, and Filipino dishes. 

You can find these recipes, along with tips about safe cooking, what to stock in your kitchen, and food shopping at healthyeating.nhlbi.nih.gov.

“The DASH eating plan is scientifically proven to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” said Pratt. And NHLBI research shows that increasing your physical activity and watching your calories while following DASH guidelines will not only make your heart happier, it can also help you lose weight. 

DASH requires no special foods, and it helps you set daily and weekly nutritional goals using these simple guides:

  • Eat vegetables, fruits, and whole grains,
  • Include fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils,
  • Limit foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils; and
  • Limit sugar-sweetened drinks and desserts.

Combining these healthy eating habits with other self-care activities can help us handle stress and take care of the heart. 

Top of the list: move more throughout the day, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and try relaxation exercises such as meditation or yoga. If you smoke, try quitting, and develop a strong social support system to help keep you motivated. Learn more about DASH at www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

Managing Emotions for a Healthier Heart

Heart health is also impacted by stress. With chronic stress, your blood pressure, heart, lungs, and gut can all take a hit. 

The NHLBI also has tips for responding to stress that can help your heart be happier. Try these techniques on your own or find a teacher or class to help you get started. 

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the hang of it quickly. And if one approach doesn’t work for you, try something new. There are lots of options for destressing. 

Meditation. One of the most studied approaches for managing stress, meditation involves developing your ability to stay focused on the present, instead of worrying about the past or future. Find a quiet location with as few distractions as possible. Get comfortable by either sitting, lying, or walking. Focus your attention on a specific word or set of words, an object, or your breathing. And let distractions, including thoughts, come and go without judgment. 

Progressive muscle relaxation. To feel the effect, first tense your muscles for a few seconds, then relax them. Start by tensing and relaxing your toes, then your calves, and on up to your face. Do one muscle group at a time.

Deep breathing. Take in a slow, deep breath, let your stomach or chest expand, and then exhale slowly. Repeat a few times. Many people don’t breathe deeply, but it is relaxing and something you can do anytime, anywhere.

Guided imagery. This involves a series of steps that include relaxing and visualizing the details of a calm, peaceful setting, such as a garden. 

Getting your mind and body to a place of calm doesn’t always mean being still, however. Other healthy ways to manage stress include taking a yoga or tai chi class, talking to a professional counselor, joining a stress management program or an art class, or meeting up with friends for a brisk walk. Being in nature can be very soothing for some people.

Combining de-stressors like these with other healthy habits can go a long way toward strengthening your heart. Find exercises you actually love and do them regularly. Get enough good, quality sleep. And develop a strong social support system. Then rethink some of the familiar ways you may be coping with stress, such as drinking alcohol frequently or overeating.

Taking care of our heart health is a lifelong journey. To learn more about heart health from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

 

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.

How Do Children Show Stress?

The past year and a half has created a new paradigm of stress for many families. A couple of years ago, a stressful day meant losing a baseball game or getting a bad grade on a test. But since 2020, stress means spending months or more indoors separated from friends, struggles with virtual school, and tragic family losses.

As an adult, you’re probably familiar with how you tend to react when stress gets to be too much. You might get snappy or irritable; you might have trouble sleeping; you might struggle to concentrate at work. But for your kids, stress can be expressed in a variety of ways. As a parent, it can help you to know how stress can look in kids of different ages, so you can help your kids recognize and manage it. 

Infants 

You might think that young children are less susceptible to the stressors we’ve experienced in the past year – after all, they don’t understand what COVID means, and their entire lives have been in quarantine. But the truth is that babies and toddlers are highly sensitive to family stress, and even if the pandemic didn’t have a significant impact on their usual routine, the stress you’ve felt has affected them. 

For young babies born just before or during the lockdown, life in a global pandemic is the only life they’ve known. For them, the return to normal schedules might be bigger stress than anything they’ve experienced yet. If you’ve been home 24/7 for most of your baby’s life, then a new daily routine involving driving, work, and daycare could be a big and stressful change. Babies who are stressed tend to cry more and sleep less, which isn’t likely to improve your stress level (or your ability to get out of the house on time). But any significant change in your baby’s normal behavior could be an indication of stress, from dietary and bowel changes to sleep and activity levels. 

On the bright side, helping your infant better manage stress is relatively easy: nurturing touch and quiet routines can go a long way toward calming them down. Young babies don’t need a lot of entertainment or stimulation, and they usually get enough educational stimulation from daily life, so reducing stress for infants usually means reducing stimulation with calm, quiet time together. Just holding and rocking your baby can cause her cortisol levels to drop. And the bonus? Snuggling with your baby can reduce your stress levels, too. 

Toddlers 

Toddlers who have been growing up in Covid probably appreciate the fact that their parents have been present a lot during quarantine. Just like with babies born in the past year, for young toddlers it’s probably the “new normal” of businesses opening back up and parents going back to work that’s causing the most stress in today’s changing world. 

Just like young babies, toddlers aren’t verbal enough to talk clearly about their feelings, so they mostly express stress through behavioral changes. Bedtime resistance and nighttime wakings are a common sign, as are bowel changes, dietary changes, and activity changes. Stressed-out toddlers might become more clingy and unwilling to go to daycare or play with friends, and they might have nightmares or bedtime fears. They might also say they feel sick and complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pain. Finally, of course, toddlers will show stress with their favorite way to express emotions – tantrums. 

One of the biggest ways to help toddlers manage stress is with familiar routines. So while it’s helpful to acknowledge what your child is feeling, and to name the emotion they’re expressing, it’s usually not helpful to change your usual plans in response to your child’s tantrums. Giving your toddler choices can help them feel empowered, but too many choices or too much change will make them feel out of control. Rather than saying “ok, you don’t have to go to daycare today,” try offering a choice like “do you want to put on your shoes first or your pants first?” Keeping a (somewhat flexible) routine and structure helps toddlers feel more secure, which reduces stress in the long run – even if it means you have to push through some protests.

It’s also common for stressed-out toddlers to invent routines out of random things you happen to do once. For example, if one morning you give your child orange juice and then a plate of scrambled eggs, they might decide that this routine is essential and get angry if the next morning you give them eggs first and then orange juice. As your routines are changing in the transition out of quarantine, it can help toddlers to maintain as many daily routines as you can — even if they seem minor or silly. 

School-Aged Children 

For school-aged kids, school and friends are a key source of both social learning and emotional support. Kids who’ve been separated from friends for much of the past year might have been really stressed by the isolation – and even more stressed about the return to school. If they haven’t seen their friends in a long time, they might worry that their friends don’t like them anymore. They might feel that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to make friends or how to play with other people. All of this might mean they have very mixed feelings about the coming school year – a perfect recipe for stress and worry. 

These emotions can show up in a variety of ways. Just like with younger children, your first clue will probably be behavioral shifts such as changes in sleeping, eating, or activity levels. School-aged kids who are stressed might withdraw from family and friends, or they might lash out and get in fights with friends or siblings. They might also have problems with grades due to difficulty concentrating or a loss of interest in schoolwork. 

Vague physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches, are another common symptom of stress in school-age children. Younger school-aged kids may also regress with behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking, or even tantrums. 

Even though these kids’ language skills are developed enough to talk about complex emotions, they probably don’t have the emotional awareness to understand or put into words what they’re feeling. If your school-aged child is lashing out or overreacting to seemingly small problems, it’s probably a sign that their level of stress is at the tipping point. 

While talking about their emotions can help, talking about anything can actually help kids at this age process stress as long as they feel like you’re listening and you care. Schedule time every day to just listen to your child talk about whatever’s on their mind, even if it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. This might feel like a waste of time when all they ever want to talk about is their favorite video game or the latest video they watched on YouTube. But if you provide that space every day to listen, then eventually they’ll surprise you by sharing the emotions and fears that are worrying most. Playing with you is also a powerful way for school-aged kids to connect and express themselves, so make time to play what they enjoy – even if that means playing that video game you hate. 

Teenagers 

Teens are almost adults, and they’re likely to express stress in many of the same ways you do: getting snappy and irritable, having trouble concentrating, and having outbursts of frustration or anger. But because they’re teens and have a harder time regulating their emotions than you do, these outbursts are likely to be more extreme than an adult’s. 

Peer relationships are incredibly important to teens, but they’re also a big source of stress – and never more than now that they’ve been strained by separation and quarantine in unprecedented ways. Stressed teens might withdraw from friends and from social activities, and they might express worries that no one likes them or they have no friends. 

Teens can also react to stress with the same types of behavior changes as younger kids, such as trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and difficulty concentrating. 

However, all of these behaviors can be hard to distinguish from normal teenage moodiness, so how do you know if your child is stressed-out or just hormonal?

The truth is this: It doesn’t matter. No matter whether your child is dealing with the normal stress of teen hormones or the massive stress of transitioning out of a global pandemic, the emotions they’re feeling are real to them. It’s normal for teenagers to feel that problems that seem small to you are devastating and life-changing, and as their parent, it’s your job to accept those emotions and support them through them. Even if you think the source of their stress seems unimportant, treat it like it’s as big a deal as your child feels it is.

Just like with younger kids, scheduling time every day to talk with your teen about whatever’s on their mind can help them manage stress in their lives. Even if they don’t talk with you about what’s really bothering them, making yourself available is a statement to them that you care about their emotions. And just like younger kids, teens will eventually tell you what they’re feeling if you give them enough space and time and listen without any judgment. 

Stress is normal, and major transitions are always going to be stressful. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, it’s impossible to prevent your children from experiencing stress. However, the first step to helping them manage it is for you to recognize it for what it is. Once you understand that your child is dealing with big emotions, you are better equipped to help them manage and process stress. In our next blog post, we will talk about ways to help kids process stress and trauma.

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. 

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.

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, the 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.

 

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.

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 responses 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 – actions 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.

 

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.

Feeling anxious? Try Mindfulness

It’s been a wild month. We are all learning so many new things. What it’s like to be together 24/7 with no end in sight. What adding ‘working from home’ and ‘schooling at home’ does to family life. Exactly how many steps it takes to walk around the block, which we’ve counted as these walks are now happening multiple times a day.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many moments when I haven’t handled it well. I’m worried and stressed, frustrated and depressed. I have been delighting in the Zoom visits I’ve had with family and friends. But when the ‘meeting’ comes to an end, the weight of our social distancing crushes me. After one family call, I lost it and cried for nearly an hour. This is all so, so hard.

I was telling a friend about my rough week and she pointed me to an article that identified what I was feeling: grief. Says David Kessler, co-founder of grief.com, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” 

It helped to have a name for the weight I am bearing. But what helped more was his advice for dealing with these feelings. 

Presence and mindfulness

“To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. At this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain,” says Kessler.

“Presence” is the practice of being present in the current moment, focusing thoughts on what is happening today, instead of thinking anxious thoughts about the future or dwelling on regrets about the past.

Focusing on the present – this immediate moment I am living – helped reduce my anxiety. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that right now we are all ok. We are healthy, the sun is shining, and the kids aren’t bickering. In this moment I am ‘ok’.

Being deliberate about noticing our present circumstances is often referred to as mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentional – aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Focus thoughts on that awareness, without judgment. Turning our thoughts to what we feel at the present moment, helps us turn away from thoughts about the past and anxiety about the future.

On my bleakest day so far, choosing to focus on just that day helped me move forward. I spent the rest of that day focused just on ‘today’. The next day I felt much better and the day after that, even better.

I know I’ll have hard days again on this roller coaster we are all riding. But remembering to come into the present moment and mindfully accept all the feelings – good and bad – will help on the rough days.

Let it go

When it gets hard, Kessler has one other bit of helpful advice: Think about how to let go of what you can’t control. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.”

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

Holiday Stressbusters: 10 Tips for Reducing Stress

As we wind up for the holidays and anticipate a break from the school routine, here are 10 Quick Stressbusters, scientifically proven to help your body fight the chemical overload caused by stress and anxiety.

1. Belly Breaths

Get into a comfortable, relaxed sitting or standing position.  Put one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand outward.  It sometimes helps to count slowly to 3 as you inhale. Exhale slowly. Repeat at least two more times. Belly breaths send messages to your brain to calm down and will reduce muscle tension throughout your body.  To learn more about belly breathing, see Breathing Exercises for stress management.

2. Take a walk

A brisk walk sends messages to your body to produce more endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel good and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression.  Stepping out of a stressful environment, even if only for a few minutes, also provides space for your mind and body to regroup.

3. Skip the nightcap

As a depressant, alcohol is sometimes viewed as a stress-reducer.  But when alcohol is added to the mix, the body releases higher amounts of cortisol, which is the hormone that triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response in stressful situations. This change to the balance of hormones changes the way the body perceives stress. Thus, alcohol prevents the body from returning to its original hormonal balance, which actually adds to feelings of stress and anxiety in the long run.

4. Drink water

Dehydration also increases cortisol levels in the body.  So when we don’t drink enough water, our body responds by releasing cortisol, increasing feelings of stress.  Says Gina Shaw, on WebMD, “Stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle. You can break it by building more water consumption into your day.”

5. Check your posture

Studies have shown that posture – how we sit and stand – affects not just our bones and muscles, but our emotions as well.  Sitting up straight, standing with shoulders back and relaxed, contributes to the body’s sense of well-being. A study on slumping, performed by the Department of Psychological Medicine, The University of Auckland, found that “Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases the rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

6. Turn on some soothing music

Music has long been known to directly connect to our emotions, so choosing some calming classical music can help your body deal with stress hormones.  As a side benefit, listening to music can be done while you are busy with other things – like getting ready for work or preparing the evening family meal. Combining the soothing effect of calming music with an activity that can be typically stressful can help balance the impact of the stressor.

7. Take a cuddle break with a loved one

Hugging has some surprising physical benefits, with stress relief being just one of them.  Studies have found that people who received more hugs were less likely to catch a cold, saw their blood pressure decline, and felt better emotionally.  According to one study, “volunteers felt better than usual on days on which they had received at least one hug.”  So counter those negative feelings by wrapping your arms around someone you love (with their permission, of course!).

8. Try some yoga

Yoga combines physical and mental discipline – bringing together mind and body.  Combining poses and controlled breathing, yoga can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.  While there are many different styles of yoga, the popular Hatha yoga provides a slower pace and easier movements. Relaxing into a series of yoga poses sends good vibes to your brain, increasing endorphins and lowering cortisol levels.

9. Write it down 

Journaling doesn’t release muscle tension from your body, like some of the other options for reducing the physical effects of stress and anxiety, but keeping a diary can help vent stressful emotions.  Spending quiet time alone, writing down your thoughts and describing your feelings can help process those emotions and provide relief. A journaling practice can take many forms – a daily gratitude journal, occasionally writing down feelings and strong emotions, or even a bullet list of goals, memories, or other things we want to remember.  And it’s a practice that can be restarted at any time if life gets in the way and derails regular journaling. 

10. Talk to someone

Telling a friend or willing listener about the stress you are feeling – talking through your feelings – can also help reduce the physical effects of stress and anxiety.  In a Forbes article on talking as therapy, Dr. Marian Margulies explained, “When I think of the process of engaging in talk therapy, I think of the analogy with writing.  The more you write, the more you know what you are trying to say – it clarifies your thinking. Similarly with talking and with talk therapy, one becomes more aware of what is making one feel anxious, sad, angry or frustrated. And then one is freer to decide how to manage these feelings or take action to alleviate them.” 

 

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

How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay, Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others.

Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There is no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations, and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles, and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is that I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain, I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—any more than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself ,“I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus.

On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.)

My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, and take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand. Unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect. Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

Can you tell me how to get to Problem-Solving Mode?

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Esther.

Knowing how to solve problems is a valuable, life-long skill. That may be the understatement of the year. Finding solutions to mechanical or physical problems is hard, but finding solutions to problems involving several people interacting and getting along with each other is really tough. That process is a major part of parenting, though.

Here are some suggested steps for problem-solving family life challenges.

(These are designed for school-age and older children–and for adults!–but the process can be modified to use with younger children.)

Part 1 By Yourself

1. Acknowledge to yourself what is going on with you: What is your physical state? (hungry, sleep-deprived, wound up, …) What are your feelings? (frustrated, worried, fearful, …) What are your fears? (I’m a terrible parent; My child will never be able to go to sleep without me, go to school, be self-supportive, . . .).

2. Ask yourself: How is this affecting me? Can I list specific, concrete ways that this is impacting my life? Is this blocking my ability to achieve my goals or meet my needs?

3. Respond to yourself empathetically—“I hear you” “It’s hard to deal with this. ” Help yourself calm down by deep breathing or physical exercise.

Part 2 With the Other(s) (spouse, child, etc.)

Establish a connection. Essentially this is saying or conveying without words “I’m available to listen—now or whenever you are ready to talk.”

4. Bring up the problem in a neutral way; for example, “We always seem to end up yelling at each other in the mornings. It’s upsetting to me and I think it bothers you, too. Can we talk about how we might be able to do things differently?”

5. Use empathetic listening. The goal is to listen for understanding, not weakness. Trust that the other person is not lying or trying to manipulate you, but being honest. You DO NOT need to agree with him/her, just to accept that this is his/her perception. Help the other person go through the process you just went through of identifying feelings and needs and calming down.

6. With the other person’s help (when possible), identify out loud (and in writing if desired): how s/he feels; his/her need(s); and what s/he would like to happen. It’s important that you are able to state these and have the other person say (or indicate) “Yes, that is what I feel, need, and want.”

6a. There may be lots of things. Pick only one to deal with right now. You can get back to the others later.

7. Now state your own feelings, needs, and what you would like to happen regarding the issue at hand. Do this as briefly as possible. Remember this is what you would like to happen, NOT what you insist upon happening. If appropriate, ask the other person to state your feelings, needs, and wants in a way that you agree is accurate.

8. Sit with this for a while together.

9. Brainstorm together—come up with a list of possible solutions (whacky and totally unrealistic ones encouraged to get the creative juices flowing) and write them down.

10. Evaluate those solutions. Consider any other relevant factors and realities: developmental stage, temperament, safety, affordability, time, health, fairness, family rules, laws, moral considerations, etc.

11. Select one(s) that meets both your needs. Be open to change. You both have veto power over any of the suggestions and you both need to agree on the solution.

12. Be as specific as possible about your agreed-upon solution—when, where, what, and who.

13. Put it into practice for a specified amount of time. Then follow up with each other—how is it working out? How are you feeling now? Make adjustments as needed.

14. Problem Solved! Celebrate successes!

Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

Breaking Down the Break

So, the kids are home from school. How is that going?

We are taking a break from homeschooling as well, so we’re all home and in full Winter Break mode. Add up all that family time, the change in routines, and the excitement of the impending holiday, and the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. What can we do to ensure that these days at home go as well as they can?

  1. Keep the routines that you can. It is tempting to let everyone (including ourselves) sleep in, and that can be nice, for sure. But if your children are accustomed to the way the morning goes in getting up and getting ready for school, pushing the day back can be disruptive. We try to keep the structure of the day intact as much as possible, sticking to predictable mealtimes, bedtimes, chores, daily activities, and downtimes in order to keep things predictable. The more things that they can anticipate happening in the usual way, the more comforted and settled they will feel.
  2. Pace yourselves. Just because we are faced with all this unstructured time does not mean that we should try to fill it with activities. Even the “fun” can be overwhelming without allowing for the quiet periods we all need in order to recharge. The adults will need to do this too, and if you are used to having time to yourself during the day, be sure to allow for that as well.
  3. Prioritize the holiday stuff. Every family has its own traditions and the children especially will delight in those activities—decorating the house, baking, taking in the lights around town—that they associate with this time of year. But I’ve found that trying to force it can be more stressful than it is worth. One of our favorite traditions has been to visit a tree farm to select a tree and cut it down. This year, however, due to a variety of factors (the extra soggy weather, a general lack of funds, and a general lack of tree space), we decided to scale back on that particular adventure. We stopped at a tree lot in town and took home a smaller and cheaper (but completely charming) tree, a process that took ten minutes instead of most of an afternoon.
  4. Get outside if you can. Especially if the kids are spending more idle time at home, and adjusting to the slower pace away from school, it is all the more important to spend time walking, hiking, and moving around out of doors. We have been taking advantage of those brief windows of non-rain.
  5. Transition back to school time. If we have been keeping a predictable schedule and balancing periods of activity with downtime, this will be easier to manage. Going back to school at the end of the break won’t be as much of a jolt if everyone knows what to expect.
  6. Be patient with each other, and with yourself. Everyone in the family is dealing with changes, and even pleasant changes can be difficult. If we remember that everyone has to adjust on both ends of the break, we might avoid the feeling of desperation that comes with having everyone just…around for so many days. Also, keep in mind that it’s normal for kids and adults to feel a bit of a crash when all the excitement is over. Anticipating that is a job of parenting, it’s true. But the easier and more predictable it is for our children the saner we will be.

Happy holidays!