A close friend recently let a bomb drop over email: she is packing up her family and trading the city for an idyllic small-town life. Over the years she and her husband had become so career driven that their careers had begun driving them! Not only will their money go further, they’ll also enjoy more of that priceless currency with their young children – time.
On the face of it, her position sounds enviable. The grass, though, is always greener in the ‘burbs. While few of us have the luxury to up and leave, there are steps we can take to minimize our stress levels. We’ve been led to believe that the chaos of modern life is inevitable, but it’s not. Stress is simply a response. It’s one response; not the only response.
We live in a pressure cooker, no doubt about it. Bombarded with media and technology, we are expected to stay switched on 24/7 in a way that previous generations never were. Are we under more stress than our parents were? Not necessarily, claims Dr. Kim Foster. “I think our resilience for stress is lower,” says the family doctor and writer from Victoria, B.C. “I think people do not expect hardship to occur, and when it inevitably does, we simply don’t have the tools to cope.”
Stress and the sabre-tooth tiger
Stress is actually healthy. Well, to a point. When faced with a perceived threat, the brain (amygdala) alerts our bodies, causing our hearts to pound, our hands to sweat, and adrenal hormones like cortisol to spike, prompting us to react. The operative word here is perceived. These days the odds of being mauled by a sabre-tooth tiger may be nonexistent, yet the body doesn’t know that. And so it responds exactly the same way every time it gets the message, regardless of the trigger.
“Stress can be sneaky,” admits Dr. Foster. “It can creep up and cause all manner of symptoms that you wouldn’t, at first, attribute to stress.” She estimates that some 60 percent of all of visits to the GP can be traced back to stress – everything from irregular or skipped periods, weight fluctuations, insomnia and fatigue, to headaches, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), frequent colds or other infections, inability to concentrate, even hair loss.
“When it comes down to it,” Dr. Foster says, “stress is the way we feel about difficult or overwhelming situations, the way we react to hardship, not the absolute facts of the situation.”
Since our environment isn’t likely to change anytime soon, it’s up to us to choose how to deal with that relentless pressure. We can turn down the heat and let the stress simmer, or we can allow it to reach a boiling point until it inevitably bubbles over. It’s up to us to decide.
The ripple effect
“Stress spreads like wildfire and is contagious,” says Lori Lite, author of Stress Free Kids. “You can easily transfer your stress to your children. Luckily the feelings of being calm and relaxed are also contagious. Deep breathing and positive relaxing statements can send a ripple effect through your family.”
Little monkeys love to imitate what they see. And if what they see every day is insecurity and anxiety, in time they will mirror those feelings and perpetuate the same vicious cycle of poor coping. Our stress can essentially become their stress.
Take the mom with a headache who switches on the TV instead of taking her children to the playground, or the dad running late for work who yells at his kids to get ready. Every one of us has had parenting moments we’re less than proud of. But if we’re not careful, over time these moments can rack up and affect our relationships.
Feeling stressed is a sign that something in our lives is out of kilter and needs to be redressed. “Take steps to bring balance back into your life,” says Lori. “Let your children see you simplifying your schedule or taking a yoga class.”
If you can't beat stress…accept it?
What if the most realistic and effective way to deal with stress isn’t eliminating it at all, but simply acknowledging it? Mindfulness is an increasingly popular movement that seeks to increase awareness and reduce anxiety, primarily through breathing. Mindfulness means being immersed in the present moment – no matter what is going on –without dwelling on what happened last year or worrying about what will happen two hours from now. It means using all of our senses to fully experience our world, be that smelling a rose or a dirty diaper, listening to birdsong or to a wailing baby!
Even if the present is less than pleasant, we must be willing to acknowledge it without passing judgment. Minimizing stress is also about perception. No situation or circumstance is inherently good or bad, fair or unfair, yet our thoughts are constantly ascribing meaning to the mundane, and often those thoughts are less than positive. When the grating little voice inside your head tells you, ‘You’re a bad mother,’ try stepping back and reframing it: ‘I am having the thought right now that I am a bad mother.’ After all, thoughts only have power if we feed them.
People who practise mindfulness regularly are actually able to control their stress reaction and regulate their emotions. They sleep better at night, and further, their memories are sharper. On the face of it, focused breathing may sound simple, but the act of truly disconnecting is not an easy feat in our wired age.
Breath is free
Aside from the many documented physical benefits, yoga and mindfulness teach us how to be still in a hectic world – a life skill this generation desperately needs. “The greatest gift we can give our kids is to just show up and be present with them,” says Temmi Ungerman Sears, director of YogaBuds yoga studio in Toronto. “The best part of being mindful as a family is the fact that you don’t need any special equipment. Your breath is free.”
And practice makes permanent. Temmi insists it needn’t take long to
incorporate mindfulness into your everyday routine. Even five-minute breathing sessions twice daily – ideally first thing in the morning and last thing before bed – will make an impact. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can be performed while riding on the subway or even during a bathroom break. No one will be the wiser!
The key is to practise these techniques when you and your children are calm rather than when you are feeling anxious or angry, which Lori likens to trying to close the windows during a hurricane. Drawing on these tools before you need them can mean the difference between responding or reacting to a given situation.
As I wish my friend love and luck, I remind myself to quit looking over the fences in my neighbourhood. Mine isn’t the greenest or healthiest lawn on the block. It’s yellow in patches and strewn with the odd weed, and probably always will be. But I’m learning to love it, dandelions and all.
– From the Canadian Mental Health Association
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.