Easy Ways Experts Cope with Stress
Expert Stressor: Morning Madness
"Getting myself, and my two kids, dressed and out of the house in the morning can get very chaotic!"
—Patricia Martin Arcari, Ph.D., R.N., director of the Calm Mother, Happy Child Program at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and the mother of two girls, ages 10 and 12.
Patricia's Stress-Solving Action Plan:
Get organized at night. My daughters and I set aside a half hour before bed to make sure that homework is done, lunches are packed and schoolbags are by the door. The girls also pick their outfits, which gives us a heads-up if, say, a matching shoe or sock is missing.
Try not to yell. There's no need to further increase your blood pressure and stress cortisol levels in the morning. When I'm about to lose it, I take four slow, deep breaths and concentrate on keeping the volume of my voice in check.
Don't sound like a broken record. I've learned not to say, "It's time to eat breakfast," only to check up on the girls a few minutes later and plead, "I really mean it. Please eat your breakfast." If they don't eat when asked, then I take the food away. This technique works with my kids. They certainly pay more attention to what I ask of them the next time.
Set consequences—and stick to your guns. Don't make empty threats like "If you're not ready to leave the house by such and such time, then I'm going without you." Instead say, "We're leaving the house at 8 o'clock, whether you're ready or not." One day of being teased at school about her uncombed hair was all it took to get my daughter Caroline moving a little faster in the morning.
Expert Stressor: Family Nutrition
"I may be a nutritionist but, like all moms, I still worry that my finicky teenager might not be eating right."
—Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, author of Read It Before You Eat It (Plume) and the mother of a 15-year-old (and two other sons now in college).
Bonnie's Stress-Solving Action Plan:
Don't be a personal chef! It's crazy to make more than one meal at a time when cooking for a family. But I will try to be accommodating if all I have to do is change an ingredient or two. For instance, one of my kids doesn't like his soup too thick or spicy, but the rest of my family does. I find it easier to set aside a portion before I add any spices and thin it out with broth, rather than make him a completely different dish.
Take shortcuts. It's okay to use prepared foods sometimes. My favorite quickies: a cut-up rotisserie chicken tossed with sauteed vegetables, or a dish of whole-wheat pasta, canned black beans and frozen veggies topped with cheese. When I'm very pressed for time: pancakes, a cheese omelet, a vegetable frittata or a salmon salad sandwich on whole-grain bread.
Serve finger foods no matter how old your kids are. When healthy food is sitting out, even teenagers will eat it. After school I leave a tray of chopped vegetables and sliced fruit on the kitchen counter, along with a dip of hummus or yogurt. Sometimes my 15-year-old even chills out with me for a few minutes as he snacks before rushing off to his room or out with his friends.
Speak their language. Talk to your children about nutrition in a way they can understand. For instance, tell them that the protein in chicken and fish will help build muscle, the iron in spinach will boost energy and the calcium in milk will strengthen bones and make them grow taller. In addition, let them know that omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon can help give them clear skin, shiny hair and strong nails.
Expert Stressor: Work-Life Balance
"My husband and I are so busy that our relationship takes a backseat to our kids and careers."
—Elizabeth Scott, a wellness coach based in Los Angeles, and the mother of two boys, ages 7 and 10.
Elizabeth's Stress-Solving Action Plan:
Hang out with other couples. When just the two of us go out we often end up talking about the boys and work, which is good, but we forget about having our own fun. Spending time with friends allows my husband and me to see each other in different roles and engage together in a variety of conversations about different, interesting subjects.
Turn off the TV. After the kids are in bed, it's easy to just sit watching television and barely interact. We've recently instituted game nights with Scrabble or Pictionary, which help bring us closer together as a couple.
Find a common interest. We decided to try a new activity together and signed up for a martial arts program. We blow off steam while getting back in shape. Plus, the extra endorphins from the exercise put us in a great mood. Our future plans: rock climbing, scuba diving, tennis, ballroom dancing, cooking courses, wine tasting seminars.
Picture just the two of you. Around our house we display snapshots of us in happy times. We limit the photos of the kids in our bedroom, to remind us that we're not only parents, but two people in a special and committed relationship.
Expert Stressor: Saying "No"
"It's difficult for me to say no when someone asks for help on yet another project."
—Debra Mandel, Ph.D., a psychologist in Encino, California, author of Your Boss Is Not Your Mother: Eight Steps to Eliminating Office Drama and Creating Positive Relationships at Work (Agate), and the mother of a 17-year-old daughter.
Debra's Stress-Solving Action Plan:
Learn to take a pass. When someone asks me to meet an impossible deadline or take on more work than I can handle, I've learned to say, "I'm flattered you think I can tackle this task, but unfortunately I have too much on my plate to do a good job for you." If it's something you would like to get to in the future (a work project, for instance), see if it can be done at a later date.
Ask for help. I was so overwhelmed with paperwork one night that I begged several co-workers to help me sort through the mess. I ordered in food, turned on music and made it feel like a party. The time we spent organizing and filing papers just flew by, and when we were done I promised to return the favor if any of them ever needed my help.
Let things go. When I start to stress about a project or situation I try to pause and ask myself if my problem is really going to matter in a week, month or year from now. If it won't, then I tell myself to relax and move on. Not everything always has to be perfect, especially when "good enough" will do.
Don't be a drama queen. When people work closely in a high-pressure setting it can get tense. Bosses can have outbursts, co-workers might point fingers and feelings may get hurt. Don't take criticism personally. You can't please everyone, so why stress about it in the first place?
An Easy Way to De-Stress Your Kids
Make it a rule in your house: All electronics must be turned off an hour before bedtime.
Lori Lite, 47, of Marietta, Georgia, has made it her mission to free kids from anxiety. As CEO of Stress Free Kids, she wrote books and produced CDs designed to help children cope with everyday ups and downs. But this upbeat mom of three is also the first to admit that her kids face their own challenges: "I see the effects of too much technology in their lives," says Lite. "My 13-year-old often doesn't hear me talking to her because she's constantly e-mailing, texting, tweeting, chatting on her cell or blogging. The technology was wearing her down and making us both tired and irritable. I saw the same thing with my older kids (now 19 and 21)." Here's her advice for stopping the madness:
Make age-appropriate choices. Kids should be exposed to technology in small doses to give them a chance to learn how to handle the responsibility. My daughter got her first cell phone at 11, which was the right time for her, but we still don't give her Internet access or the ability to send photos on her cell.
Set clear limits. No electronic devices at the table during mealtimes in our house. I also have a strict no cell phone rule when my daughter does her homework. But every time she finishes an assignment, I reward her with a 10-minute break (on a timer), when she's allowed to go on her cell or computer. Her concentration and focus has improved dramatically—she gets her schoolwork done in about half the time it used to take!
Tell your children to get a (real) life. It's important for kids to balance whatever world they think they have on the computer with real interactions with friends and family. My older kids are away at college, and we have a pact that for every five texts they send me, they owe me an actual phone call.
Know when to shut down the fun. My daughter was having a tough time falling asleep. She would lie in bed playing video games after the lights were out. So I got her into the habit of unwinding with a 300-piece puzzle instead, which helps clear her mind and makes her drowsy. All electronic devices now have to go off an hour before bedtime.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.