Written by Shala Hainer Friday, November 18 2011Trying to squeeze healthy living into your daily routine of getting kids ready for school, working, making dinner, helping with homework, driving kids to activities, and maintaining your home may seem daunting. Making small changes to promote living healthy as a family can make you – and your kids – more productive at work or school and happier overall. Healthy living involves stress management as well as eating right and daily exercise.
“Stress can make you feel run-down, sad, nervous, angry, or irritable,” says Stephen Vetzner, Alexandria, Va., of Mental Health America. “It can cause headaches, muscle tension, upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, or feelings of despair, and may cause you to eat more or eat less than normal. In the long term, stress can raise your risk of high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and reproductive problems and weaken your body’s ability to fight disease.”
Dr. Shaelynn Buck of Atlanta-based Prescription to Thrive, who uses her medical background to fight chronic stress in America, says there is a vicious cycle that can lead not just to emotional and physical problems, but to more unhealthy behaviors as well. “The more stressed out we are, the more likely we are to engage in unhealthy behaviors,” she says. “The more unhealthy we are, the more likely it is that it will promote stress in our bodies. Our bodies won't be as resilient as they can be against stress. I believe that chronic stress is at the root of our unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, substance abuse, unhealthy eating, sedentary behaviors.”
People become stressed about different issues, but the way the body reacts is the same. With chronic stress, people stay at a constant level of stress without a daily break. This can rewire the brain to have a heightened stress response, which causes the brain to react with increased heart rate, breathing rate, or blood pressure at even the slightest stressor.
“It's a matter of breaking the cycle by training ourselves to act versus react,” says Buck. She recommends first identifying your triggers, or the things that cause you stress. Then, train yourself to relax. “The best way is through controlled breathing exercises, which prompt the relaxation response. Identify a trigger, such as sitting in traffic, then do some deep breathing exercises every time you're in that situation. Use a relaxation word, such as 'peace' or 'relax,' to take care of the immediate response to head it off at the pass. The second thing this does is rewire our brains – we start to associate that trigger with relaxation.”
Stress doesn't affect only adults. The 2010 Stress in America study by the American Psychological Association shows that nearly three-quarters of parents don't think their stress significantly impacts their children, yet 91 percent of teens say they are bothered when their parents are stressed. They become worried, sad, and frustrated, and one-third of the children reported experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches or sleep problems when their parents were stressed. The stress that is transferred to the children can cause them to do poorly in school, be depressed, or act out, according to Dr. Daniel Blake, licensed psychologist and psychoanalyst in Michigan.
“The most important thing to consider is that if parents gets preoccupied or invested emotionally in their own concerns, they may lose sight of their children's needs and cause them to feel abandoned,” explains Blake. “This could injure their self-esteem. That's the biggest problem with parents who are stressed – they are not invested in their children's life issues.”
Dr. Frederic Luskin of Stanford University has written several books on stress management, including Stress Free for Good, and says that parents must recognize how children model their behavior. “Children watch their parents for clues as to how to cope with life,” he says. “They both learn from their parents and get a felt sense of safe/not safe by how well their parents respond to stress. More simply, stressed parents are poorer caretakers and create more uproar in the house.”
Parents should recognize that some stress is unavoidable, but dealing with the stress is key. “It's common as a parent to have a moment of time when you're preoccupied with your own difficulties,” says Blake. “To be a good parent, you should be as alert as possible to these moments of preoccupation so they can happen less intentionally and less frequently. Be as alert as possible to how you're functioning. Life is hard enough; we want to protect our children from feeling hurt, and when they're hurt by a parent's preoccupation, it makes their lives more difficult.”
For businesses, stress and unhealthy lifestyle choices of employees cost billions in lost productivity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that business’s indirect costs of unhealthy life choices among employees and their families, such as missing work days for their own or their children's illnesses, disability issues, or productivity losses at work, top $225.8 billion dollars a year. The CDC also reports that overweight employees may take up to a week's worth of sick days more than normal-weight employees who follow a more healthy lifestyle.
“One in four people says they’ve missed work due to work-related stress,” comments Vetzner. “When we are under chronic stress, we often have trouble meeting deadlines, concentrating, and making decisions. Our productivity and performance decrease as our stress levels increase. We also may become easily irritated and overwhelmed and have relationship problems with colleagues. Many people who are overstressed at work are unable to leave their job-related issues behind at night or they feel immobilized on the job. Stress can also mean more headaches, backaches, and colds — and more sick days.”
If your workplace offers a health program, such as a free gym membership or health classes, take advantage of it. If you own a business, adding a workplace health program may save you money over the long term. The national organization Partnership for Prevention compiled results from 56 studies on workplace health programs and found a 27-percent reduction in sick days and a 26-percent reduction in health care costs at businesses that offered the perk.
“When it comes to stress, it may be hard to break the cycle all by ourselves,” Buck says. “Building support is key, both at home and the workplace. Encourage your employer, community group, or professional organization to make stress management a priority by hosting stress management workshops, classes, and programs. Make stress management a priority at home by encouraging open conversation and developing family steps to reduce stress. Yes, it's hard to hear from your child, 'I hate your stupid Blackberry.' But, it may be exactly what you need to hear.”
Work together as a family to create a healthy lifestyle you all can support. Small steps, such as eating together, can improve your spirits and encourage more nutritious meals. Studies by Harvard University, Rutgers University, and the University of Minnesota show that children who eat at the table with their families regularly are more likely to eat healthy as adults. And, the studies show that they are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and illegal drug or alcohol abuse. Get the kids involved in planning the menu and preparing the food – not only does this teach them how to cook healthy and gives you helpers in the kitchen, but it also reinforces reading comprehension and math lessons as the children measure ingredients and count portions.
Another small adjustment in your schedule is to go to bed on time. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults, more than nine hours for teens, and up to 11 hours for children 10 and younger. The CDC recognizes sleep as essential to a healthy lifestyle and the prevention of chronic disease.
“We're learning more about the mind-body connection and that stress is one of those things that really bridges that connection,” says Buck. “We know it when we feel it – think of most embarrassing moment and your body begins to react. There's a strong link between stress and sleep – insomnia is definitely on the rise in parents and children. Stress and unhealthy sleep feed off of each other. It's a tough cycle to break.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends children get at least one hour of physical activity – especially aerobic activity such as running – per day. Adults need two and a half hours per week, although it can be broken into small increments. Spend time as a family walking in the park or playing soccer in the yard. Take the stairs at work or park at the end of the lot instead of near the building.
“Many people, especially women, manage stress through unhealthy behaviors – sedentary behaviors like overeating,” says Buck. “Your body is trying to manage stress, but it's doing it in unhealthy ways. Women will engage in sedentary behaviors, such as sitting in front of television. Remember, your kids are watching; they are sponges, learning behavior from you.”
Tips for Reducing Stress
Mental Health America offers steps to help you control your daily stress levels:
- Talk about it. By talking with others you will reduce your stress and realize that others share your feelings.
- Take care of your physical health. Get plenty of rest and exercise, avoid excessive drinking and drugs, and eat properly.
- Limit your exposure to the news media. The images, rumors, and speculation can be damaging to your sense of well-being.
- Engage in activities you find relaxing. Plant flowers, attend a concert, visit an art gallery, or take a long bath. Be kind to yourself.
- Do something positive. Contact community volunteer organizations to see how you can help. Give blood, prepare “care packages” for service men and women, or support a friend or neighbor who is having trouble coping.
- Take care of your children. Acknowledge their worries and uncertainties. Reassure them that their feelings are normal. Maintain your family routines, and keep the lines of communication open.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.