From infancy to adolescence, children witness and absorb how we, the adults, respond to life’s circumstances and to each other. Back when I was an inexperienced mom with a new baby, my oldest son would start to fuss whenever I anxiously tried to hurry us out of the house in order to get somewhere on time. I realized then, as I watched his reddening face pucker into a pout, how much my anxious mood impacted him.
The busy daily routine of a modern family demands Herculean stamina and perseverance. Most of us experience overwhelm at some point, to some degree. Reducing worry, stress, and anxiety can increase our peace of mind, improve our health and promote more peaceful loving relationships.
The best approach that I have found for managing my own worry, stress and anxiety is practice, practice and more practice! Here are some research-informed suggestions that have worked for my clients and me.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. Henry David Thoreau
The Eye of the Beholder: When you discover that your curious preschooler has just invented a rare exotic creature by rubbing finger paint all over the family pet, do you “see red” and think to yourself, “Oh no, another mess for me to clean up!” Or do you chuckle as you marvel at young children’s inquisitive drive to experiment and get out your camera to record this fleeting moment? Some people can picture their glass half full more easily than others can. The more we practice seeing the upside, the opportunity, and the mystery in our circumstances, the greater chance that our own glass will continue to fill up, and, perhaps, overflow.
Befriend Yourself: Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think!” To sooth worry, stress and anxiety we need to edit the inner conversations that perpetuate our dis-ease and discomfort such as: regretting the past, worrying about the future, holding others accountable for our well-being, fabricating unsubstantiated assumptions, or putting ourselves and others down. We can convert our inner critic into an inner ally by replacing negative messages with positive ones. Instead of, “I’ll never get this right,” you can say to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.” Supportive self-talk reinforces new neural pathways and generates real change over time. Really!
Lead by Example: Young children, tweens, and teens face stress and frustrations of their own–hormones, homework, social crises, and developmental challenges–so it’s best not to overload them with our fears and worries as well. When we come on too strongly with anxious concerns we trigger their stress response–fight, flight, freeze–and the corresponding defense mechanisms: to seize up, run for cover, or engage the enemy (that would be you!) Instead of instigating a military-style inquisition fraught with dread, simply say what you need and want without delivering a stress-inducing emotional wallop: “I noticed the bathroom still needs cleaning. Didn’t you agree to do that?”
Know Thyself: Like fish that have grown accustomed to their watery surroundings, we may become impervious to the stress pervading our lives. You might not even notice the knot tightening in your stomach when you learn that your car needs major repairs or you may wonder why you have a headache, until you realize how tightly you’ve been clenching your jaw at the thought of a looming deadline at work. When we understand our reactions to stress we are more likely to discover effective strategies for relieving the tension and less likely to inadvertently vent our tension on others.
An Ounce of Prevention: The best remedy for worry, stress and anxiety is prevention. Healthy habits can reduce negative thinking and avert excessive emotional outbursts. Much evidence suggests that aerobic exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and healthy relationships improve our mood and help us regulate emotions. To boost your well-being get outside for a walk or a jog as often as possible; sample the yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises on the Internet; or join a class to jump start your wellness routine. Staying connected with supportive friends, family and neighbors really helps too.
Make a Plan: Research suggests that we are more likely to succeed at substituting new habits for old ones if we have a plan. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains that even when we create a new, healthier habit to replace one we’d like to eliminate, the neural circuits of the old habit can still be activated under the right circumstances. The best way to avoid automatically falling back on old habits while under duress is to plan and practice replacement habits for such instances. For example, if you know you’ll be tempted to skip your exercise routine, make a date to exercise with a friend so you’ll be less likely to cancel.
Lighten Up to Break the Tension: When my sons were young, I often employed my best Brooklyn accent to impersonate the voices of two imaginary dogs, Louie and Fifi, to dispel boredom and liven up our 20-minute drive home from town. A healthy dose of silliness, fun and play is great medicine for all ages and stages. As a respite from chores and worries, playful roughhousing with loving adults relieves tension and shows children how to let off steam responsively. Play perpetuates a fun, jovial atmosphere and equalizes the relationship by allowing both children and adults to “be in charge.”