Mental Health and Coping with Stress


Stress is something that everyone experiences to varying degrees throughout their lives. Stress was originally defined in 1936 by one of the first researchers in the field, Dr. Hans Selye as, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This really encompasses many aspects of our lives, positive and negative.

Many times we think of stress as only being a negative thing that is caused by negative experiences like, the car breaking down, the kids acting up, or work being exceptionally demanding. But stress can be caused by positive experiences too, like a promotion at work, having a baby or moving to a new house. Another interesting aspect of stress is that it can sometimes be a good thing, a motivator to get a job done by the deadline or to act quickly in an emergency situation.

When stress becomes a problem, is when it impacts our ability to function in our daily lives. Many people, parents especially, are so busy with day-to-day activities that they don’t recognize that they and their kids are experiencing stress. So how can you tell if stress is having a negative impact on your well-being and what can you do to help ease the stress you and your family may be experiencing?

Multiple resources on stress, including the Mayo Clinic, identify stress symptoms in three categories: physical, emotional and behavioral. Physical symptoms can include fatigue, sleep difficulties, stomach and digestive issues, muscle aches and headaches (including migraines) and simply getting sick more often, indicating a weakened immune system. Emotional symptoms can include loss of motivation, increased irritability and anger, anxiety, sadness, restlessness, an inability to focus, mood swings and a loss of interest in sex. Finally, behavioral symptoms of stress can include unhealthy eating patterns (over- or under-eating), increased use of tobacco, drugs or alcohol, social withdrawal and “nervous habits” like nail-biting.

An important thing to note is these stress symptoms may look the same in children and teens, but sometimes they do not. What is essential for parents to recognize is that children do experience stress and tuning in to the physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms they may be demonstrating can be key to addressing a problem before it gets out of hand. Stressed out kids can complain of multiple physical ailments that have no physical cause, may describe themselves as worried, confused, annoyed or angry, or may be more negative about themselves, others, or the world in general. They can also show negative changes in behavior like acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that they used to enjoy, complaining more than usual, or overreacting with anger, sadness or fear to routine situations.

So what can you do if you recognize some of these symptoms of stress in yourself or your family? Fortunately, there are many things you can do as a parent to engage your family in healthy behaviors that reduce the impact of stress on your lives. The Yale Stress Center at the Yale University School of Medicine recommends the following stress management tips:
1) Look at how your family manages time. Things as simple as using a family planner to list activities or saying “no” to an occasional activity can help reduce the stress inherent
in busy family life.
2) Set realistic goals for yourself and your child(ren). Making daily to-do lists can help prioritize activities and provide concrete evidence of the things you and your family have accomplished.
3) Eat healthy meals and snacks, exercise and get enough sleep. You and your children are more susceptible to the impact of stress if your bodies are struggling to function properly.
4) Take time out for activities and hobbies that you enjoy alone and together as a family. It is important to remember that all these things do not have to happen at once. Every small, healthy lifestyle change will contribute to a family that is better able to cope with stress in the long run.

Finally, getting professional help, like seeing a therapist or counselor, is always an option if you feel what your family is experiencing is beyond what simple lifestyle changes can address.


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