Kids returning back to school? Stressed yet? If you want to weather the drama and tumult your children may drag home every day, it may be time to hone your stress management skills. Beyond the cliches (‘take a bubble bath’, ‘drink some wine’, etc.), there are well-researched techniques that can get you through homework, tears, whining, and any other stress that might arise.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
A recent study showed that PMR decreased anxiety among pre-university students. Indeed, an old standard, these exercises take effort but offer tremendous results. Set aside quiet time (at least 15 minutes) each day, find a comfortable chair or lie down, and tense and relax separate muscle groups starting with either your facial muscles or your feet, and progress throughout your body.
Tense and relax each group of muscles twice for five seconds, with a five-second pause. As you continue this practice, you will become more aware of where you hold tension, and what your body truly feels like when it is relaxed.
Over time, you can train your body to ‘just relax’ without having to repeat the entire exercise. There are many examples online, but here is a simple one to try.
Deep breathing exercises
A quick, effective, and easy technique, deep breathing involves taking slow, deep belly breaths from your diaphragm (not your throat), and attempting to slow the pace of your breathing. When you are tense, you are more likely to take fast, shallow breaths, which increases anxiety even more. The easiest way to slow it down is to count while you breathe.
You could start by slowly inhaling to the count of four, holding that breath to the count of four, exhaling to the count of four, and then holding that breath out to the count of four.
Experiment with the number counts (use a count of six, eight, etc.), but it is important to breathe from your diaphragm with your mouth closed and make sure you hold your breath between inhalations and exhalations. This is an easy technique to practice. Set aside some quiet time, but you can even practice while waiting at stoplights or sitting through a boring meeting at work.
Interestingly, it was revealed in one study that expectations mediate the psychological effects of deep breathing beyond the intervention’s specific effects.
Visual imagery is the ability to visualise objects that are not in our direct line of sight: something that is important for memory, spatial reasoning, and many other tasks.
What you picture in your mind’s eye can affect your mood. Close your eyes and imagine a calm, relaxing, safe, beautiful place you have visited. Use all of your senses to heighten your awareness. Remind yourself of how calm and peaceful you feel in this safe, relaxing place.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to focus on the present and avoid competing distractions. It can reduce stress and boost immune function. For a simple description of how it works, see this instruction. There are also some free mindfulness exercises online that you can try along with apps you can use on your phone.
Research has repeatedly shown that even small amounts of exercise reduce stress, improve memory and concentration, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, and boost mood. Find time to make exercise a part of your daily life.
Whether we realise it or not, our thoughts dramatically influence our feelings and behaviours. We may harbour unconscious expectations or long-held beliefs that influence how we respond to situations. Cognitive behavioural strategies help you challenge entrenched beliefs that may hold you back.
For example, if you get nervous meeting with your child’s teacher, it’s not the teacher who makes you feel anxious; your underlying negative thoughts fuel your anxiety. Thoughts such as: ‘She will think I’m stupid’ or ‘I can never express myself clearly’ or ‘I know it’s pointless because nothing will ever change’ can create anxiety or feelings of hopelessness.
Some common negative thinking patterns include catastrophising (assuming the worst will happen), mind-reading (assuming you know what the other person is thinking), or fortune-telling (thinking you can predict the future). A complete list of ‘cognitive distortions’ can be found here and is worth viewing.
Raising kids is hard work. You need to find time for the things you enjoy, even if life seems too busy. In fact, research has shown that pleasurable activities can reduce anxiety responses in the brain. Obviously, overindulging in food, sex, drugs or alcohol is not the answer, but finding healthy, enjoyable activities is critical to enhancing your well-being.
Close friends and family can be essential when you feel stressed. Learning to reach out when you need emotional comfort is a necessity, as isolation can fuel depression. Research has shown that women, in particular, ‘tend and befriend‘ during times of stress.
They instinctively take care of others, but also benefit from the support and companionship of friends. Even if you are busy, make time to nurture the friendships in your life.
One interesting study investigated the healthy lifestyle, stress management, and spiritual well-being of the female clergy. Findings supplement research on female clergy health, as it relates to health-promoting behaviours and spiritual well-being.