Help yourself, and them, by learning techniques to manage stress in a healthy way
By Brigit Katz
On a recent afternoon, JD Bailey was trying to get her two young daughters to their dance class. A work assignment delayed her attempts to leave the house, and when Bailey was finally ready to go, she realized that her girls still didn’t have their dance clothes on. She began to feel overwhelmed and frustrated, and in the car ride on the way to the class, she shouted at her daughters for not being ready on time. “Suddenly I was like, ‘What am I doing?'” she recalls, filled with anxiety. “‘This isn’t their fault. This is me.’ ”
Bailey has dealt with anxiety for as long as she can remember, but it has become more acute since the birth of her second daughter, when she began to experience postpartum depression. She knows that her anxiety occasionally causes her to lash out at her daughters when she doesn’t really mean to, and she can see that it affects them. “You see it in your kids’ face,” Bailey says. “Not that they’re scared, but just the negativity: ‘Oh my God, my mommy’s upset.’ You’re their rock. They don’t want to see you upset.”
Witnessing a parent in a state of anxiety can be more than just momentarily unsettling for children. Kids look to their parents for information about how to interpret ambiguous situations; if a parent seems consistently anxious and fearful, the child will determine that a variety of scenarios are unsafe. And there is evidence that children of anxious parents are more likely to exhibit anxiety themselves, a probable combination of genetic risk factors and learned behaviors.
It can be painful to think that, despite your best intentions, you may find yourself transmitting your own stress to your child. But if you are dealing with anxiety and start to notice your child exhibiting anxious behaviors, the first important thing is not to get bogged down by guilt. “There’s no need to punish yourself,” says Dr. Jamie Howard, director of the Stress and Resilience Program at the Child Mind Institute. “It feels really bad to have anxiety, and it’s not easy to turn off.”
But the transmission of anxiety from parent to child is not inevitable. The second important thing to do is implement strategies to help ensure that you do not pass your anxiety on to your kids. That means managing your own stress as effectively as possible, and helping your kids manage theirs. “If a child is prone to anxiety,” Dr. Howard adds, “it’s helpful to know it sooner and to learn the strategies to manage sooner.”
Learn stress management techniques
It can be very difficult to communicate a sense of calm to your child when you are struggling to cope with your own anxiety. A mental health professional can help you work through methods of stress management that will suit your specific needs. As you learn to tolerate stress, you will in turn be teaching your child—who takes cues from your behavior—how to cope with situations of uncertainty or doubt.
“A big part of treatment for children with anxiety,” explains Dr. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, “is actually teaching parents stress tolerance, It’s a simultaneous process—it’s both directing the parent’s anxiety, and then how they also support and scaffold the child’s development of stress tolerance.”
Model stress tolerance
You might find yourself learning strategies in therapy that you can then impart to your child when she is feeling anxious. If, for example, you are working on thinking rationally during times of stress, you can practice those same skills with your child. Say to her: “I understand that you are scared, but what are the chances something scary is actually going to happen?”
Try to maintain a calm, neutral demeanour in front of your child, even as you are working on managing your anxiety. Dr. Howard says, “Be aware of your facial expressions, the words you choose, and the intensity of the emotion you express, because kids are reading you. They’re little sponges and they pick up on everything.”
Explain your anxiety
While you don’t want your child to witness every anxious moment you experience, you do not have to constantly suppress your emotions. It’s okay—and even healthy—for children to see their parents cope with stress every now and then, but you want to explain why you reacted in the way that you did.
Let’s say, for example, you lost your temper because you were worried about getting your child to school on time. Later, when things are calm, say to her: “Do you remember when I got really frustrated in the morning? I was feeling anxious because you were late for school, and the way I managed my anxiety was by yelling. But there are other ways you can manage it too. Maybe we can come up with a better way of leaving the house each morning.”
Talking about anxiety in this way gives children permission to feel stress, explains Dr. Kirmayer, and sends the message that stress is manageable. “If we feel like we have to constantly protect our children from seeing us sad, or angry, or anxious, we’re subtly giving our children the message that they don’t have permission to feel those feelings, or express them, or manage them,” she adds. “Then we’re also, in a way, giving them an indication that there isn’t a way to manage them when they happen.”
After JD Bailey lost her temper at her daughters on their way to dance class, she made sure to explain her reaction, and then focused on moving forward. “I said, ‘I’m sorry. Mom is a little stressed out because I have a lot of work going on. Let’s listen to some music,’ ” Bailey recalls. “We cranked up the music in the car, and it changed our mood.”
Make a plan
Come up with strategies in advance for managing specific situations that trigger your stress. You may even involve your child in the plan. If, for example, you find yourself feeling anxious about getting your son ready for bed by a reasonable hour, talk to him about how you can work together to better handle this stressful transition in the future. Maybe you can come up with a plan wherein he earns points toward a privilege whenever he goes through his evening routine without protesting his bedtime.
These strategies should be used sparingly: You don’t want to put the responsibility on your child to manage your anxiety if it permeates many aspects of your life. But seeing you implement a plan to curb specific anxious moments lets him know that stress can be tolerated and managed.
Know when to disengage
If you know that a situation causes you undue stress, you might want to plan ahead to absent yourself from that situation so your children will not interpret it as unsafe. Let’s say, for example, that school drop-offs fill you with separation anxiety. Eventually you want to be able to take your child to school, but if you are still in treatment, you can ask a co-parent or co-adult to handle the drop off. “You don’t want to model this very worried, concerned expression upon separating from your children,” says Dr. Howard. “You don’t want them to think that there’s anything dangerous about dropping them off at school.”
In general, if you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with anxiety in the presence of your child, try to take a break. Danielle Veith, a stay-at-home mom who blogs about her struggles with anxiety, will take some time to herself and engage in stress-relieving activities when she starts to feel acutely anxious. “I have a list of to-do-right-this-second tips for dealing with a panic, which I carry with me: take a walk, drink tea, take a bath, or just get out the door into the air,” she says. “For me, it’s about trusting in the fact that the anxiety will pass and just getting through until it passes.”
Find a support system
Trying to parent while struggling with your own mental health can be a challenge, but you don’t have to do it alone. Rely on the people in your life who will step in when you feel overwhelmed, or even just offer words of support. Those people can be therapists, co-parents, or friends. “I am a part of an actual support group, but I also have a network of friends,” says Veith. “I am open with friends about who I am, because I need to be able to call on them and ask for help. ”
You can also look for support on blogs, online forums, and social media. JD Bailey runs a site called Honest Mom, where mothers can post essays about mental health and parenting. “I write about mental health to connect with other moms and help them not feel so alone,” Bailey explains. “I get email and Facebook messages from readers, and the most common comment is, ‘I felt so alone until I found your site.’ And yes, writing about depression and anxiety helps me, too!”
Long-term nutrition can have positive effects on brain health
By Cara Rosenbloom
If you’ve ever found bliss in a bite of chocolate or smiled when someone offered you a french fry, then you know food can make you happy. But while it’s true that your favorite treat may give you a brief emotional lift, sustained mood-boosting brain power can only come from a consistent supply of nutritious foods.
Recognizing the difference between a quick jolt of cookie fueled joy and the positive effects of long-term nutrition for brain health is important. Researchers are taking a closer look at how food can impact your mood and future cognitive function, and they are finding that what you eat does make a difference.
There’s a mountain of evidence to show that the well-researched Mediterranean diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And good news! That very same diet is also associated with improved mood and a reduced risk of depression and cognitive decline.
The key to the Mediterranean eating plan is to emphasize vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and lean protein, while reducing ultra-processed, fried and sugary foods. Basically, eat the real stuff, and cut back on junk food.
Enjoying a collection of nourishing foods can feed the brain the right combination of nutrients, which help boost serotonin, the neurotransmitter that’s responsible for happiness and wellbeing. It also allows the brain to be properly fed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to combat oxidative stress and reduce cellular damage to brain cells.
An offshoot of the Mediterranean diet is the brain-healthy MIND Diet (Mediterranean- DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), which is based on the same foods but adds extra emphasis on eating berries, leafy greens and nuts. Researchers have found that people following the MIND diet have better cognitive abilities, equivalent to being 7.5 years younger in age than people not following it. They also found that people sticking to the MIND eating plan lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53 percent. Yep, food can do that.
Studies show it’s the cumulative and synergistic effect of all of the foods in the Mediterranean/MIND diet, and not one singular food that has the most powerful effect on brain health. Translation: There’s no specific superfood that will make you happy or improve cognition. Instead, aim for a healthy eating plan with a variety of nutritious foods. Here are some brain-healthy ingredients to consider adding to your plate, and why you should embrace them:
People who eat omega-3rich fish tend to have a lower risk of depression and a more positive affect, which is defined as how much you experience positive moods and feel joy. Bonus: Salmon also contains vitamin B-12, which helps produce brain chemicals that affect mood. Low levels of B-12 are linked to depression.
Whether from supplements or foods, these good bacteria are beneficial for more than digestive health. People who take probiotics see improvements in their perceived levels of stress and have a more positive mental outlook compared to people not taking probiotics.
Spinach, chard and other dark leafy greens contain magnesium, which can positively impact serotonin levels and boost your mood. About half of all Americans are low in magnesium, and this deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety. In addition to your greens, add magnesium rich pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, chickpeas and beans to your meals.
With a high content of antioxidants known as flavonoids, blueberries help activate brain pathways associated with better cognition and less cellular aging. Blueberries and blueberry juice are associated with having a more positive mood.
This seafood delicacy is high in zinc, a mineral that’s not stored by the body and must be consumed daily. Being deficient in zinc is linked to depression. Other good sources of zinc include crab, beef, beans, chickpeas and cashews.
Results from systematic reviews indicate cocoa can shake off bad moods, and may be protective against depression. And sipping antioxidant- rich hot cocoa increases feelings of contentment and puts people in a happy mood. But since too much sugar is negatively associated with brain health, choose dark chocolate and keep portions to a square or two a day. While many foods provide positive brain fuel, there are some edibles that have the opposite effect. In contrast to the Mediterranean-style plan, typical unhealthy Western diets that include excessive amounts of sugar, salty snacks, processed and fried foods have been associated with worsening of symptoms of depression, and an increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
For these reasons, the Mediterranean diet includes limits on “meats and sweets,” while the MIND Diet limits fast food, red meat, cheese, butter, stick margarine, pastries and sweets. Keeping your brain in shape is just one more reason to choose whole foods and cut back on processed items.
"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor."~Thích Nhất Hạnh
We have the ability to regulate our nervous system in a variety of ways, inducing a state of calm and relaxation. This article is the first in a series which will investigate specific techniques to use towards inducing calm, particularly through vagal nerve activation. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in one’s body. Its name means “wanderer” – as it originates in the brain stem and wanders to the ears, tongue, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, heart, lungs, pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, intestines and stomach.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in “rest and digest” behaviors and initiates an overall calm state and immobilization. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is involved in “fight or flight” behaviors and initiates a state of fear and anxiety and mobilization. When a person is hiking in the woods and spots a black bear the sympathetic nervous system is activated, initiating a cascade of events that involves one’s breath becoming shallow, pupils dilating, heart rate increasing, palms becoming sweaty, digestion slowing down and running.
While most of us are not hiking in woods and stumbling upon bears, we encounter several real and perceived threats in our everyday life – your toddler standing on a wobbly chair, your partner’s frowning brow when you walk in the door, the tone of someone’s voice, an image that reminds you of something painful from your past. All of these cues can trigger your body into “fight or flight” mode as if you are standing in front of a bear.
The number of times one experiences fight or flight mode per day can interfere with his or her overall level of functioning, manifesting in a variety of mental illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder to name a few. The good news is that there is a myriad of ways in which one can activate the vagus nerve, changing the body’s physiology and tipping the scales back to a state of calm and rest and digest. As a matter of fact, through initiating diaphragmatic breathing, we have 20,000 to 30,000 opportunities a day to initiate a state of calm, which is the number of breaths humans take in one day.
There are several resources on-line or your therapist can teach you diaphragmatic breathing. To do so, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. When you inhale, the hand on your stomach should extend out and the hand on your chest should remain relatively static. Continue to breathe in this pattern for a few rounds or if you are able, try to work towards 5-7 cycles (inhale and exhale) of breath per minute to initiate paced breathing. Stop if you become light headed. Both methods of breathing, either diaphragmatic or paced are generally not natural. Like any new skill, practice makes perfect.
The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation. Stephen W. Porgers. W. W. Norton & Company 2011.
Breatheology: The Art of Conscious Breathing. Stig Avall Severinsen. Idelson-Gnocchi Ltd. 2010.
Everyone feels anxiety at some point. Whether you’re stressed about an upcoming test or just generally feeling anxious, the same “fight or fight” stress response is the same. While this response can be helpful when in a particular emergency situation, the body will quickly wear out if this stress response is triggered too often by everyday life.
To combat this exhausting cycle, you simply need to activate the relaxation response, which puts the kibosh on anxiety and brings your body back to its natural state. You’ll know the relaxation response has set in when your breathing slows, your heart rate decreases, and your muscles naturally loosen. Keep in mind that it is only in this state that your body can properly heal itself! Simply zoning out on the couch will not trigger the same healing response in your body – the damaging effects of stress need serious reversal that junk food and your TV cannot provide!
While yoga and meditation are the easy answers to eliciting the relaxation response, you can also try these five other techniques for a quick answer to your anxiety:
Autumn is officially here. The leaves on the trees are changing color, school is in full swing, and there’s already a chill in the air. Unfortunately, this also means cold season is upon us. The decreased temperatures lead to more time indoors with other people, which mean germs are more easily spread. Viruses also thrive in cold, dry weather, making it even easier for you to get sick.
So how do you protect yourself from catching a cold when people all around you are going down for the count? Here are ten ways to help ward off germs, courtesy of our on-site nurse, Brenda!
1. Wash Your Hands. First and foremost, make sure you are washing your hands. Frequently. Whenever possible, grab some hand sanitizer too. This will prevent not only the spread of germs to other people, but the contamination from your hands to your face. Which leads us to our next point…
2. Quit Touching Your Face. It often becomes habitual to touch your lips or rub your eyes throughout the day. Stop. Viruses can enter your body through your eyes, nose and mouth, and touching your face delivers germs straight into your system.
3. Reach for the Yogurt. You can give your immune system a boost simply by eating a small container of yogurt. The probiotics will help strengthen your system and make it harder for germs to take you down. Try adding yogurt to smoothies, use in place of sour cream, or stir into overnight oats for your quick and easy dose. For an extra punch, add a little honey to your yogurt – it’ll help loosen congestion, supply antioxidants, and prevent dehydration.
4. Crack a Window. Air out your office, your living room, and your car by opening a window when you can. It’ll help keep airborne viral particles on the move, making it harder for you pick them up. You’ll also freshen up the air in the room, letting out trapped germs and viruses.
5. Pick Up Some Fungi. It isn’t just a myth from Super Mario: the immune-boosting powers of mushrooms are real. The antibacterial and antifungal effects of mushrooms have been proven to both increase your T cell count and decrease inflammation. Chow down on shiitake mushrooms for your strongest attack against pathogens.
6. Down Some Water. Mom always said that fluids are your friend when you’re feeling sick, and she’s absolutely right! Aim for about two liters of water per day to help flush your body of excess mucus when you start to feel a cold coming on.
7. Eat Your Vitamins. Since no one is entirely sure what exactly is in those supplement bottles, we recommend taking your vitamins straight from the source: your food. Aim for about 1000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day by eating lots of bell peppers, broccoli, kale and oranges. Zinc is also essential for maintaining a healthy immune system, so stock up on beef, cashews, spinach and pumpkin seeds. Finally, don’t forget about Vitamin E, which protects against viral infections. Tofu, avocados and fish are a great source of this often forgotten vitamin!
8. Keep Away from Sneezers. This one should be obvious: stay out of the line of fire when people around you are sneezing. But don’t underestimate the distance you should keep. Particles from a sneeze can travel up to 20 feet!
9. Get Your Beauty Rest. Putting in your time under covers will help strengthen your immune system, keeping those germs at bay. While sleep is the best way to stay healthy, it’s also important to make time for relaxation during the daytime. When you meditate, read, do yoga or engage in other relaxing activities, your interleukins (molecules that respond to attacks from viruses) increase in your bloodstream, priming your body to fight colds and the flu.
10. Reach for a Neti Pot. Flush your nose free of mucus and debris by cleansing with a Neti Pot. Begin by boiling salted water, and let cool to room temperature before flushing your nasal cavity. Or you can use an OTC saline solution, if you prefer. This will help clear out any viral particles you may have breathed in during the day!
When the ten thousand things become one, then we return to the center, where we have always been
Over the past few years, mindfulness has made an amazing transformation in our modern society. In years past, many people considered mindfulness to be an ancient practice of Buddhist monks. Now, after lots of research has been conducted about brain imaging and mindfulness, meditation has become more mainstream not only in individual practice but also within psychology and medical fields. Mindfulness practice is now a widely accepted method of calming the mind, easing tension, and even supporting the body’s natural ability to heal. Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness does not need to be practiced in conjunction with specific spiritual practice in order to be effective.
Mindfulness is so much more than a trendy stress reduction technique. But what does it mean to practice mindfulness? Put simply, it is the focused awareness of the present moment. When we are mindful, we become fully conscious of simple sensations, like the warmth of sunlight or the ripeness of a blueberry. By unlatching ourselves from our mental processes, we are able to recognize our thoughts for what they are, and to remind ourselves that these thoughts don't necessarily represent reality. We can observe our thoughts passively, rather than becoming engulfed by them.
Why should you practice mindfulness? A few of its numerous benefits includes lower blood pressure, decreased reactive tendencies, stronger focus and lesser stress levels. Here are a few pointers to get started:
1. Set Aside Time. It can be useful to designate a short amount of time to sit in meditative silence. Start somewhere between 15-30 minutes, and increase as your slowly adjust to your new practice.
2. Minimize Distractions. Because intense focus is central to practicing mindfulness, distractions need to be minimized. When practicing mindfulness, be sure to steer clear of electronic devices that can dilute our effectiveness and challenge our ability to truly relax and enjoy.
3. Breathe Deeply. The simple act of taking deep breaths stimulates the relaxation response in your brain. This helps counter the “fight or flight” response that takes over your body when you’re dealing with a stressful situation. Throughout the day, close your eyes and take several deep breaths. You will feel the benefit immediately!
4. Eat Mindfully. Because mindfulness means bringing your full attention to whatever you’re doing, you can easily practice it during mealtime. Start by bringing your full attention to your food. No driving, working or other multi-tasking allowed! Notice the sensations involved with the experience. How does each bite of food look? How does it taste? This intense focus should increase your sense of satisfaction and well-being.
5. Practice Gratitude. It is easy to focus on what other people have, but this will just make you feel jealous and lacking. Shift your focus and start a daily journal that lists at least five things you are appreciative for in your life. Maybe it’s your family, your health, or your favorite coffee shop. Write it down with thankfulness.
Want to learn more? We recommend a visit to PalouseMindfulness.com, where you can enroll in a free eight-week online course with Jon Kabat-Zinn.
You can also call our office at 509-334-1133 to sign up for a DBT class, which teaches the integration of mindfulness into daily life.
We know it's early to start thinking about Seasonal Affective Disorder. But did you know that you can start warding off symptoms simply by starting light therapy in the summer?
We believe that August is the optimal time to start plugging in your light boxes and reaping the benefits of preventative light therapy. This will give your brain plenty of time to adjust to the new bio rhythm before the effects of shorter days start setting in.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Remember to talk to your primary care doctor and mental health counselor before starting any kind of light therapy, and keep us posted on your progress. Good luck!
The PRC Blog
Here, the PRC staff teams up to provide our views and advice on common mental health issues.