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My wife and I have been together since high school, and she was just offered a new position at work. Yay!! We’re so excited. But there was only one catch: the offer required that she take and pass a standardized test. Three things trigger her anxiety more than anything else: doctors, spiders, and tests. When any of these three is a possibility, she can’t sleep and loses her appetite. We’ve always known this was an issue for her, but we work through it. One step at a time.

Her anxiety before these events made me curious. Is this normal? Is it a sign of something more? Is she ok? I mean, I get anxious about some things, but not to that extent. So, I did a little digging. In the process, I came across some interesting articles and research regarding something called “anticipatory anxiety.”

What is anticipatory anxiety?

It sounds clinical, but anticipatory anxiety comes from fear or worries about things that could happen — situations, events, or experiences that may lie ahead. It can stem from past experiences, but it doesn’t always. My wife’s anxiety with tests or spiders doesn’t stem from past trauma. The anxiety with doctors? Now that’s a different story. 

Some symptoms may include things like hyperventilating, chest pain, difficulty concentrating and feeling apprehensive. It can also show up as sleep issues, loss of appetite, emotional numbness, and trouble managing emotions. 

Aren’t we all a little anxious about the future?

Sure! It’s normal for all of us to feel anxious about the future from time to time. Tests, moving, big trips, new jobs, and major medical procedures are just a few examples of things that cause anxiety. It’s not unusual to worry over these things, but there’s a BIG difference between being worried and having anticipatory anxiety.

Let’s take a look at some differences. A 2015 study looked at “phasic fear” (fear that precedes a threat you can predict) and anticipatory anxiety. Phasic fear lasts for a short time. On the other hand, anticipatory anxiety lasts longer and is a reaction to an unpredictable threat. Each fear activates different parts of the brain. The researchers found that we all experience different levels of anticipatory anxiety. BUT if a person suffers from an anxiety disorder, anticipatory anxiety can go well beyond what most people experience. Anticipatory anxiety can be life-limiting for those who suffer from panic disorder, PTSD, or a phobia.

An American Psychological Association survey in March 2021 found that 50% of participants reported anxiety in the current reentry phase of the pandemic. We’re probably all a little anxious right now as the world reopens and kids return to school (in some areas of the country for the first time since March 2020). We might even worry about a COVID recurrence or future pandemics.

So, how do we cope with anticipatory anxiety?

Anticipatory anxiety can put stress on personal relationships because you’re distracted by what-ifs. It can be life-limiting as you try to avoid things you’re afraid of. But you can cope with anticipatory anxiety and work to overcome it. 

We can also help others cope by paying attention to their actions and emotions. Maybe you have a loved one with anticipatory anxiety. If so, you can encourage them to use the coping mechanisms listed below. A strong support system that offers love, grace, and encouragement can make a world of difference.

Here are some methods to help you cope:

Practicing a relaxation response: Deep breathing, guided imagery, or meditation are a few examples. Find something that calms you.

Self-talk: Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend who’s having a similar experience. Self-compassion can make you more mindful. It can also motivate you to recognize and face your fears.

Healthy distractions: Take a walk, listen to music, engage in your favorite hobby, or exercise.

Challenge your anxious thoughts: Ask yourself if you’re being realistic. If you aren’t, challenge those thoughts with realistic ones.

Take action: Sometimes, the best solution is to confront whatever makes you anxious. This may mean taking small steps toward conquering your fears. You don’t have to tackle it all at once.

So, my wife faced her test anxiety. She studied diligently. The kids and I cheered her on and offered words of support and encouragement. We created an environment at home to lessen her anxiety as the time to take her test got closer. And she passed her test. With that, the fear is gone… until the next test. But, when it comes to spiders, we’ve got a long road ahead. [Read How To Help Your Spouse Deal With Anxiety]

Overcoming anticipatory anxiety takes work. But, reining in your fears will be helpful for you and your family. If you think your anticipatory anxiety could be a sign of something more, consult with a therapist or counselor for guidance. 

Sources:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-and-cognitive-psychotherapy/article/abs/anticipatory-anxiety-as-a-function-of-panic-attacks-and-panicrelated-selfefficacy-an-ambulatory-assessment-study-in-panic-disorder/F74B866DB57404E82BAB423D9F48689F

https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3524

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.22382

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/26/10607

https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress

5 Ways Kids Can Affect Your Marriage (& What to Do About It)

Reduce the stress and increase your connection with these tips.

Me: “Ok, what’s on the calendar this week?” 

My wife: “We have two baseball games. I have to work late Tuesday. You have a PTA meeting Wednesday morning. Our friends invited us to dinner on Friday.”

Me: “Ok, I have four runs scheduled. I forgot I have a dentist’s appointment on Tuesday afternoon. I’ll move that so I can pick up the kids. Oh yeah, don’t forget we have a tournament this weekend.”

We look at each other. “Do you remember life before kids? What happened?”

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Being a parent is amazing, but it’s tough. Life changes with kids, and each stage of parenting brings new challenges. There’s a lot to balance. 

Let’s be real: kids affect your marriage. Here are a few common ways and what to do about it:

1. Self-care often takes a backseat for parents.

Self-care, what’s that? Both of my elementary-age kids have schedules, activities, homework, projects, and social lives. (Wait, when did their social lives replace mine?) It can be hard to carve out alone time, but you need it, and so does your marriage. 

So, what can I do about it? Schedule self-care just like you schedule everything else. Don’t just wait for time to run, go to the gym, do yoga, or whatever activity you prefer. Make sure your partner schedules it, too. You’re a team, and team members need to be healthy (mentally, physically, and emotionally) for the relationship to be healthy. 

2. You may disagree about parenting styles.

My wife doesn’t parent as I do, and it’s frustrating at times. Ever been there? It happens. We all enter marriage with a belief system about how to parent, and it’s often based on how we were parented. Couples talk about if they want to have kids, how many, and when. But they don’t talk about how to parent. And that can lead to frustration.

So, what can I do about it? It starts with communication. If you aren’t on the same page about parenting, talk about it and try to come to a resolution. Express what you both believe and why. Don’t accuse; instead, work toward compromise. If you both want what’s best for your child, you’ll find a solution together.

3. Date night can get put on the back burner.

Dating is crucial to a healthy marriage, and kids can affect your ability to do that. Before kids, there may have been elaborate date nights, expensive dinners, flowers, and gifts. Now, you don’t feel like there’s time to think about dating. And what do you do with the kids? You don’t have the time to not have a date night, because they keep you connected and pursuing each other. Date nights just may look different. 

So, what can I do about it? Set realistic expectations. Date nights may not be what they once were, but they can be memorable. Prioritize date nights and put them on the calendar. Try once a month and then progress to once every other week. Dream big: Make your goal once a week. Your marriage (and your kids) will thank you.

4. Your sex life may change.

Early on in parenting, your sex life often takes a backseat because babies make life interesting. But you’d expect it to bounce back once you’re past the toddler years. For many, it does, but it isn’t always consistent. And kids always find a way to interrupt. Sex can become just another item on the to-do list, and that’s no fun. Being intimate with your partner is a worthwhile priority for your marriage. 

So, what can I do about it? If you don’t want to sacrifice physical intimacy due to exhaustion, busyness, or stress, schedule sex. Yep, have an honest conversation about your sex life. Agree on how often and when. Plan how to handle potential interruptions. Scheduled sex may seem boring, but it creates anticipation and excitement.

5. Marriage satisfaction may decrease…

Kids and all the issues I mentioned above can affect your marriage by adding stress to your marriage. When stress mounts in your relationship, satisfaction decreases. You’re not alone in feeling this way. Research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that many parents with kids experience reduced satisfaction, too. 

So, what can I do about it? Here are a few ideas:

  • Have social support—parents, friends, family, and neighbors. Get help when you need it.
  • Practice self-care. Make sure you’re getting sleep, eating well, exercising, and pursuing hobbies.
  • Find and maintain balance. Balance work with play, your needs with your kids’ and partner’s needs, and time.
  • Focus on your mindset—practice gratitude and positivity. Have fun and be patient.

Yes, being a parent is challenging, but it’s so rewarding. Enjoy it, make memories, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Be intentional about having a healthy marriage, because it’s the best thing for you and your kids. 

Other helpful blogs and resources: 

Are You Setting a Good Example of Self-Care for Your Family?

My Spouse and I Disagree About Parenting

How to Have More Sex in Marriage

DOWNLOAD: 30 Days of Gratitude and Love

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Is Stress Killing Your Relationship?

Find ways to manage stress before it does major relationship damage.

Are you overwhelmed with deadlines at work, kids in school, the weekly to-do list, health concerns, drama on social media? Is stress taking a toll on your relationship? Do you find yourself taking out your stress on your significant other? If so, you’re not alone. 

Stress, handled wrongly, hurts relationships. It’s a reality. Often it’s the small stressors that build up and do damage. 

We all face daily stresses. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use a magic wand and remove all the stress in our lives? The reality is we have to learn to manage stress, not let stress manage us.

Here’s how to tell if stress is impacting your relationship:

Stressed out people are more withdrawn. 

When you’re stressed, you may pull away from those you love or be less affectionate. Maybe you’re working longer hours, spending more time alone, or camping out in front of the TV as a way of escaping all you have to deal with. Isolating yourself can damage your relationship.

Stressed out people see the worst in others. 

When we’re stressed, it’s easy to allow the small things to overwhelm us. A minor thing your spouse does, like not picking up their shoes, suddenly becomes a sign of disrespect and a lack of appreciation. Maybe they just forgot their shoes. But stress is blurring your vision and you see them doing it out of spite.

Stress leads to exhaustion. 

Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Whether the tension stems from work, kids, or our calendars, it bleeds over into all aspects of our lives. Have you ever noticed that when you’re mentally exhausted, you just want to sleep? Stress takes a toll on our bodies. This can leave our spouse (and others) feeling neglected.

Stress makes us irritable. 

Who wants to be around grumpy people? The longer the stress lasts, the crankier you get. This can lead to arguments and hurtful words. 

[How Not to Blow Up On Your Kids When You’re Stressed Out: The Timeout is a great read if you’ve got kids]

Stress causes us to put other things in front of our relationship. 

Technology is a fabulous tool but can also be a source of stress. Endless work texts or emails can interrupt time with your spouse. When we are stressed due to work or other obligations, it becomes easy to prioritize those above our relationship.

So, if you find yourself resonating with these common signs of stress…

Make a plan…when you aren’t stressed out. 

If both of you are in a place of little stress, plan how you will deal with stress once it increases. Help to identify each other’s stressors and stress patterns. Look for ways to reduce stressors before they take over.

Reduce your stress. 

You can’t help your spouse if you can’t help yourself, so identify what reduces your stress. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to go for a run. It’s time to decompress, soak in the fresh air, and clear my mind. Maybe it’s exercise, music, or getting in nature. Communicate to your spouse what you need to do to reduce stress. Make sure you both have time to de-stress and refresh. (Read How Couples Can Help Each Other De-Stress and Improve Their Relationship)

Prioritize your relationship. 

You’re a team! Commit to each other and to ensuring that stress will not take over your relationship. Dr. Michael Mantell, an Advanced Behavior Coach, puts it this way: “Help each other remember you cannot control the uncontrollable, to always look for victory not defeat, to agree to set aside time to talk and be each other’s defense attorney, not prosecutor.”

Ask for help. 

Your partner can’t provide for all your needs. Putting that expectation on each other isn’t healthy. Sometimes we need help, whether that’s a trusted friend or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Protecting your relationship must be the priority. 

Stress is a reality. You can’t make it go away, but you can manage stress so that it doesn’t kill your relationship. What will you do today to reduce stress in your life?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

2020 will be a year to remember for sure. Nothing about it seems normal. Many people have commented, “I just keep pinching myself thinking I’ll wake up and this nightmare will be over.” Living through a pandemic can take its toll on everyone, impacting you physically and mentally. As you continue to navigate through these times, there are ways you can be intentional about protecting your family’s mental health.

For starters, it’s important to continually remind ourselves that we’re going through something that’s very unusual. We’re all living in a heightened state of anxiety and stress that impacts our mental and physical health. Life as we once knew it has been disrupted.

family's mental health

Just when families felt like they were gaining the upper hand on a sense of normalcy, schools reopened. Now families are having to regain their footing when it comes to routines, rituals, and structure, too. In times of high anxiety and stress, the consistency of routines and structure are soothing to everyone. 

Make your home a peaceful place—a refuge from all the craziness going on in the world. Spend some time thinking about things you can do to create calm. Play calming music, light a lavender candle and let the sunlight in. Encourage your children to find a comfy spot where they can read or play with their toys.

Be self-aware. Your children are like sponges. Whether you notice it or not, they’re watching your every move, your facial expressions and even listening to your conversations that don’t include them. They’re quick to pick up and take on your stress and anxiety. Have adult conversations out of the hearing range of your children. Be proactive in dealing with your emotions.

Be open and intentional about having conversations about Coronavirus and other things that are going on in the world. Ask your children to tell you what they know or have heard. Use their information as a platform to affirm accurate information and correct inaccurate details. Assure them that your job is to make sure they are cared for and protected and you are doing that.

Exercise, getting enough rest and eating right are three essentials for protecting your family’s mental health. This is like the trifecta right here! Walk as a family and insist that people getting the rest they need. Involve everyone in creating fun, healthy meals.

Limit the amount of time you and your family members watch the news. This one action can dramatically decrease the anxiety, stress, anger, fear and drama in your home. Mentally and emotionally, our brains and bodies aren’t meant to live in a constant state of stress, but that’s exactly what happens when we watch news nonstop.

Think of ways you can be helpful to others. During difficult times, it’s easy to become focused on yourself and all that’s wrong with the world. A great way to combat this as a family is to look for ways to help others. Deliver food, do yard work, run errands, bake bread or cookies and share them with your neighbors. (Let your kids do a ring and run when they deliver. It can be your secret!)

Make play a priority. Seriously. Play releases all the feel-good hormones that promote an overall sense of well-being. Heaven knows we could all use a triple dose of that right now. Ride bikes, go for a hike, play hide and seek, tag, kick the can, four square, hopscotch, double dutch jump rope or any other active game you can think of. Just get moving!

Remind yourself and your family members: there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is hard and there are parts of dealing with life right now that are not fun, but together as a family, you can do hard things. When one person’s having a hard day, other family members can be encouraging and affirming to help them get through it. Being in healthy relationship with each other is one of the best ways to protect your family’s mental health.

When parents model and lead out using these strategies, it teaches children how to navigate through hard times in healthy ways. It shows you believe they have what it takes to keep going even when things get really challenging. This builds self-confidence and helps them learn how to think and be creative in the midst of change. 

A side note: if you feel like members of your family aren’t handling all that is going on well, don’t hesitate to seek help. Talk with their pediatrician and/or a counselor to seek guidance on other ways you can help them.

If you or someone you know is struggling and you need immediate assistance, you can find 24-hour help here:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Photo by Elly Fairytale from Pexels

Sometimes life just seems to be getting harder. For many, most days feel like slogging through thick fog and it’s really hard to see the road ahead. 

Perhaps you or someone you know is really struggling at the moment and you’re wondering if the sadness is due to a single life circumstance or if something bigger is going on like depression or some other mental health issue.

First, let me just say, you’re not alone! We’re living in a moment in time where everything—marriage, parenting, work, socializing with friends, even the most normal things—seem more difficult than they should be for many people.

Second, regardless of whether you or someone you care about is sad or dealing with something else, the good news is, help is available.

Sad? Depressed? How do you know the difference?

Glad you asked!

Feeling sad and down about things like job loss, finances, marital issues, a child giving you a run for your money, or a breakup is normal for a period of time. But, when you:

  • Can’t seem to shake those feelings and you begin to feel hopeless and desperate; 
  • It feels impossible to think clearly; 
  • Making a decision seems out of your reach;
  • Work is consistently challenging;
  • Things that used to bring you joy in life don’t anymore; 
  • Food doesn’t interest you or you are eating way more than normal; and 
  • You’re either not sleeping enough or you are sleeping all the time and still feel like you don’t get enough rest.

These are like blinking caution lights warning you something is not right. There are some things you might be able to do to help move you to a different place, though.

Here Are 5 Ways to Work Through Depression

1. Surround yourself with a supportive group of friends.

Not necessarily people who are experiencing the same thing you are, but people who seem to be mentally and emotionally healthy right now. Ask them to walk this road with you and help hold you accountable for changes you’re trying to make.

2. Create a new bedtime routine.

Lying in bed watching television or scrolling through social media doesn’t count as rest. Stop all screen time at least an hour before you plan to get some shut-eye. If silence makes it hard for you to sleep, download a white noise app or purchase a white noise machine. Maybe you could try a simple fan in your room. Don’t use your bed for anything other than sleeping… and well, those things that you typically do in bed (like sex). Otherwise, keep your bedroom as kind of a safe place where your body knows it’s time to relax and rest. 

3. Get moving.

Exercise has been shown to be one of the BEST ways to combat depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise releases feel-good hormones that can make you feel better about yourself. It also can help you get out of the negative thought cycle that feeds depression. Exercising on the regular can give you more confidence, it’s something you can do with others and it is a super positive way to cope with and manage depression. Don’t forget, being outside, getting enough vitamin D, drinking plenty of water, and fueling your body with healthy foods are all powerful weapons for fighting depression. 

4. Pay attention to how much news and negative information you take in every day. 

Remember, the motto for the newsroom is, “If it leads, it bleeds.” Their whole goal is to be sensational to draw you in. The more you are drawn in, the more it will affect you. It’s a vicious cycle. Your brain doesn’t know it’s the fifth time you’ve seen information about the plane crash, murder, latest political blunder, or car wreck. All of this impacts you mentally and physically whether you realize it or not. Put a time limit on how much news you watch. The same applies to social media.

5. Eliminate as much stress as possible.

Think through all you have on your plate. Is there anything you can let go of for a while to reduce the stress in your life? If you can’t let go of certain activities, can you ask others to help you? 

In addition to doing all of these things, be bold and ask for professional help. Plenty of counselors are providing telecounseling and Zoom sessions right now. If you don’t know where to look for help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline is 1-800-662-4357. 

If you’re worried about someone you care about, don’t be afraid to step up and say, “I see you. How can I help?” Guiding them through all the above is a great place to start if they’re open to your support. 

Photo by Inzmam Khan from Pexels

“If we want to live a wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating rest and play, and we must work to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

Brené Brown

I’m so exhausted and stressed out!” Is that a cry for help or a badge of honor?

Sadly, we live in a culture that not only normalizes burnout as a way of life but also kinda glorifies it. If you are perpetually busy and exhausted—You. Must. Be. Important! 

But at what cost?

Maybe we need to worry more about being healthy people. 

Ah, but insights like that usually only come to us when we slow down, find some quiet, and get alone with ourselves. Alone. Solitude. Introspection. “Sorry, ain’t got time for that!” (I think a lot of people intentionally stay busy because they don’t want to have to think about life and look at themselves.) Make time. Being alone is a healthy skill to be cultivated. Being alone is when some cool stuff happens: Inspiration. Reflection. Insight. Wonder. Clarity. Rest and Restoration. Whatever ambition has you so busy chasing, you’re going to need all this stuff along the way. Plus, the people you care about need you to care about you and take care of you.

Here are five signs you need some alone time, stat!

1. Your body is trying to get your attention.

Do you wake up and not feel rested and rejuvenated? Does your body “hit a wall” during the day that sends you to the coffee-maker? Do you catch every cold and flu bug that’s going around? Do you collapse into bed like you just finished a marathon? 

Your body might be trying to get your attention. It’s trying to tell you that your batteries are low and need recharging. Some time alone doing something restful and reenergizing might be just the ticket. Make sure it’s something you genuinely find soothing and medicinal—not work-related and stress-inducing.

2. Little things just wreck you.

Things you normally would take in stride or wouldn’t bother you at all now get an exaggerated response from you. It could be a short delay, a slight change of plans, an annoying freeway driver, or someone’s tone of voice, and you’re fuming or crumbling. You know that’s not you.

You’re fragile. You’ve become so busy and stressed you don’t have the margin or emotional resources left to handle life’s little annoyances. Alone-time is anti-fragile time. It strengthens you on the inside. Getting alone in a meaningful, healthy way can give you the focus to regain some perspective, as well as the fortitude to handle bumps along the way.

3. The people in your life are dropping hints… 

Learn to put the clues together. That look on your spouse’s face means you snapped at them. That eye-roll from your kid means, “What’s. Up. With. You?

Your friend or co-worker asking, “Are you okay?” or “How have you been lately?” means “Someone has their Cranky Pants on today!

Sometimes we are the last person to recognize how we’ve changed and are not acting like ourselves. Learn to pick up on the hints before the hints become arguments, outbursts, or resentment. You don’t want to hurt the people you love even a little bit, but when you’re tired and stressed out, or feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, you tend to take it out on the people closest to you. We all do.

Don’t be afraid to tell the people in your life you need a little alone time. It’s mature and self-aware to say, “Sorry I’ve been a little extra lately. I need to go for a walk and clear my head.” Go to a movie by yourself or send yourself to your room and watch one. Take a book to a coffee shop. Go for that run. Reassure the family that it’s not them, it’s you. (They know.)

4. You’re bored, not interested in anything, and just feel… blah.

You’ve been rushing through your hectic schedule so fast for so long, you don’t remember what to do with some downtime. You’re so burned out, you just don’t feel like doing anything—even the things you normally enjoy. You are listless and lethargic. You aren’t up or down—you’re just there. 

Sometimes you need some unproductive, unfocused vegging out alone time. Grab your favorite snack and watch some reruns of your favorite show. Go to a park or out on your deck and just sit. Soak up some sun. To the untrained eye, you look like you’re doing nothing, and that’s exactly what you need. This afternoon’s plan is not to have plans. Feel what it feels like to have no deadlines and no demands on your time. Give yourself permission to clock out for a little while. Feel that? Feels good. (If you feel “blah” for weeks at a time, that’s not good. Get that checked out.)

5. Sometimes, you just know. 

Sometimes you do. Listen to that little voice. Quit ignoring it. Stop thinking you don’t really need some alone time or don’t deserve it or it’s a sign of weakness or will disappoint someone if you take it. The world won’t stop spinning if you don’t get to everything on your To-Do list. That’s vanity. Give yourself a break. The reality is, alone time helps bring clarity, creativity, and energy to every part of your life. Your life-goals won’t suffer if you take some time for you; your life-goals will suffer if you don’t.

You got this!

Image from Unsplash.com

What would it look like to be completely stress-free in your marriage? Wouldn’t it be outright, utter marital bliss to wake up next to your spouse, depart for the day, rejoin together, and go to bed at night with the one you love the most without an ounce of stress pervading your relationship? 

Well, unfortunately, you can’t completely eliminate stress from your life. But you can manage stress and become a stronger couple as a result of it. The idea is to manage stress so that it does not manage you… and do harm to your health, your emotions, and most important of all, your relationship. 

What’s a Stressed-Out Couple to Do? 

Here are five ways you and the one you love the most can manage stress well… and grow stronger in your marriage at the same time! 

Come Together.

Perhaps the Beatles knew something about stress management in marriage. Stress research tells us that one of the best tools to manage stress (if not the best tool) is a strong support system. And you have no better support system than each other. Make spending regular time with each other a priority (without the kids). Talk. Do the fun things you love doing together. Reconnect

The Big 3: Sleep, Diet, Activity.

The research also tells us that if you want to manage stress and not have it manage you, you’ve got to get plenty of sleep at night (7-8 hours), eat clean and healthy, and get out and work the bod, whether it’s a heavy-duty workout or simply taking a walk. And hey, the Big 3 can be done together! Why is this good? Because you’re each other’s strong support system (see bullet #1). 

Be Physically Intimate.

Loving touch lowers the brain chemicals at work when stress builds, and increases those that bring joy, euphoria, and the ability to work yourself down the ladder of high stress. Cuddle on the couch. Hug each other daily. Give (and receive) back rubs. Hold hands. Lay your hand on their leg or shoulder. Yes, even those seemingly small non-sexual touches can make a tremendous difference in how well you handle stress. And sex? Yeah, that works, too. Let’s just say that having a strong support system has never been so much fun (see bullet #1)

Ease Up On The Schedule.

If your calendar is filled up from dawn to the wee hours of the night with work, projects, responsibilities, and demands, you probably aren’t leaving much margin for your brain to snap out of fight/flight/freeze. Give yourself space in your schedule just to be, especially at night when you’re winding down. Practice the fine art of saying “NO.” Find joy in writing in your calendar times to connect with your spouse. Or to nap. Or to have sex. Seriously

Make Self-Care a Priority.

The idea of “self-care” has been getting a lot of airplay in blogs, videos, and self-help books, but for good reason: it’s good to take care of yourself. Because here’s the thing: how can you take care of your marriage (and your spouse) if you don’t have anything to give? Self-care includes deliberate actions you take with the express purpose of taking care of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. So… get some sunshine. Journal. Meditate. Do yoga. Fish. Take a nap. Pray. Read. Cuddle with your pet. Practice positive self-talk (I tell my college students to think about what they would love for people to say to them to lift them up, and then just say it to themselves). Enjoy a piece of chocolate cake (in moderation, of course). The bottom line: do what works for you to rejuvenate and care for yourself. 

One more interesting thing about stress that you and your spouse really need to know

*(Fair warning: this gets a little psycho-babble, but bear with me here!)*

There’s a chemical in your brain called oxytocin. It’s gained popularity, becoming known as the “cuddle hormone.” It’s released when moms give birth, when dads look on their newborn for the first time, when a couple is on a first date, and when two people have sex. It makes you want to get closer to another person, to bond, connect, be intimate. 

Kate McGonigal, a Stanford health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, shares the real low-down on oxytocin: it’s a stress hormone. That’s right: it’s released when you experience something that stresses you out. Why? (And this is really cool…) This is your brain’s way of letting you know that you need to connect with someone (like, um, your spouse maybe?) to best manage the stress. 

You may not like stress, but it’s not going anywhere. But stress can be managed to where it doesn’t wreak havoc on your marriage. And you and your spouse have the power to use stress, and the brain with all its many wonderful processes, to draw closer to each other and strengthen your marriage. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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Is My Stress Level Affecting My Child?

What you do with your stress can make all the difference.

Walk into a crowded room and ask for a show of hands from anyone who has not felt stressed-out in the past six months. If you find a hand-raiser, pull them aside, and ask their secret. My bet is not one hand will be raised. Truth is, we all experience stress at varying degrees, and many times it overwhelms and overtakes us. As parents, we have to ask the question, “Is my stress level affecting my child?” 

The short answer is, yesbut there’s more to the story than that. Bear with me here. 

LET’S EXPLORE STRESS

Most people think stress is bad, and we should do everything we can to eliminate it from our lives. The less stress, the better. I admit: I’ve thought this for many years. However, that’s not entirely true. 

Let’s flip the script somewhat: Stress actually plays an important role in our lives. By definition, stress is the normal reaction the brain and body has when change occurs. You know about change: the boss assigns another project, the overdue bill arrives in the mail, the in-laws announce they’re coming for dinner (not that this would ever stress me out personally… in case anyone asks).  

And we experience responses to stress in different ways: increased heart rate, heavier breathing, cloudy thinking, jitteriness, headaches, stomachaches… the list goes on.  

Nevertheless, stress is vital. Without it, we couldn’t avoid dangerous situations, meet deadlines, or have a competitive edge. 

  • Our eyes wouldn’t dilate for a wider sight range to look for danger. 
  • Your breathing wouldn’t speed up, carrying oxygen to the brain for sharper mental acuity. 
  • And your heart rate wouldn’t increase, giving you a boost of energy to meet a particular challenge. 

These are all good things. But here’s the kicker: our brains and bodies are only meant to experience these bouts of “good” stress for short periods of time, enough to work through whatever change is going on. Stress turns “bad” when we camp out in these responses for a prolonged period of time. 

Our brains and bodies aren’t designed to handle this well. Matter of fact, our brain can actually restructure itself and function in a chronic state of stress. (Doesn’t that sound wonderful?) Have you ever met someone who seems on edge, stressed out, ready to snap? More than likely their brain has trained itself to stay in that “fight or flight” mode. And this has some terrible effects on body, mind, emotions, and relationships. 

What this all boils down to is not whether or not you have stress (nor necessarily the level of stress, although that plays a part of it), but what you’re doing with your stress. 

So back to the kids. Is your stress level affecting your child? Of course it does—and how it affects them depends on what you’re doing with the stress. 

THE EFFECT OF PARENTAL STRESS ON CHILDREN

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind In the Making and researcher at the Families and Work Institute, has shown that parental stress (or more accurately, parental distress) spills over onto our children. Galinsky’s research indicates children almost have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting parental distress. Maybe you’ve experienced this with your own kiddos. They pick up on the tension in your facial expressions and the worrisome tone of your voice. And the worst part is, children mimic your tension and behavior. If you are freaking out, even just on the inside, they are more prone to play monkey-see-monkey-do. 

To further the point, University of Maryland researcher Nathan Fox and his colleagues looked into how parenting styles affect how children regulate emotions and deal with stress. An interesting finding of his showed that one of the least helpful characteristics were parents who are alarmists. These are parents who see danger everywhere and predict the worst-case scenarios in their minds. They make regular use of the phrases “You are going to hurt yourself” or “Be careful!” or “Please don’t fall!” These parents have worry written all over their faces and wear their distress like a bright orange caution vest for their children to see. 

The big takeaway point here for parents is not Don’t Get Stressed; rather, parents need to model how to handle stress in healthy ways. In Galinsky’s words, “…you matter—and that includes how you convey stressful situations to your child.”  

SO WHAT’S A (STRESSED) PARENT TO DO?

  • Keep in the forefront of your parenting mind that the idea is not to eliminate stress, either from our own lives or that of our kids, but to learn to deal with distress in a healthy way. It’s very tempting to want to shield our children from the stressors of the world, but those stressors serve to bolster your child’s development. Megan Gunnar, researcher at the University of Minnesota and considered to be the foremost authority on stress and coping in children, says, A childhood that had no stress in it would not prepare you for adulthood. If you never allow your child[ren] to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life—where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage?” 
  • Model healthy ways to cope with your own distress. One of Nathan Fox’s latest studies found that when parents have someone to turn to for support during stressful times, it has a positive effect on their children’s social development. The big lesson is, have a healthy support system available for you. And be sure to practice self-care. When you regularly do intentional acts of taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health, not only are you mounting fortifications to guard against distress, you are also showing your kids how to build those same guardrails. 
  • When you are having a bad day when distress might be getting the best of you, use this as a learning opportunity for your children. Say something to your kids like, “Today doesn’t feel like a good day for me. Sometimes mommies and daddies have bad days when they feel worried about certain things. That’s okay—I know that everything is going to work out and that I don’t have to feel this way all the time. Here’s how I’m going to help myself feel better today…” And then, share with them how you’re going to work through the stress you’re feeling. Voila!—a stellar teachable moment. 
  • On stressful days, let your kids know that it isn’t their fault. Since children often do have that “sixth sense” to indicate when you’re feeling stressed out, it can be easy for them to feel responsible for it. Ensure them that sometimes bad days happen to both children and adults, it’s nothing they said or did, and we all have the power to overcome the feeling of being fearful, worried, or anxious. 

One final thought:

If you’re married, do everything you can to handle marital conflict in a healthy, respectful way. We know from research that when handled poorly, parental conflict, is emotionally and physiologically traumatic for kids. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and researcher, tells us that even kids as young as six months can detect when unhealthy conflict is happening, and it has a negative impact on development. For some great information on how to handle marital conflict in healthy ways, take a look at this blog, this one, and this one, too

So, does your stress level affect your child or not? Well, yes. But maybe the real question is, does how you handle stress have an effect on your kids? It certainly does, and the effect can be either positive or negative depending on how you’re handling it. Times of stress, those inevitable changes you experience that cause your brains and bodies to respond in certain ways present opportunities to teach your children valuable lessons for adulthood. Show your children the power they have to control stress rather than have stress control them. And it begins with you.

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