By Michelle Bailey, MD
Michelle Bailey, MD is a pediatrician with the Healthy Lifestyles Program at Duke University. The program focuses on empowering kids and families with the skills and knowledge needed to live a life of healthy eating and active lifestyles.
High rates of unemployment, an unstable economy, long or frustrating commutes, pressure to do well academically – these are all things that cause us to worry in today’s fast-paced society. The 2010 American Psychological Association (APA) Survey on stress in America notes that the majority of Americans are living with moderate to high levels of stress. Stress and worry are universal among all people, including children. New studies find that children are experiencing moderate to extreme levels of stress in everyday life. Forty percent of teens and almost half of kids surveyed between the ages of 8-12 say they feel sad when a parent is stressed or worried.
Children sense when parents are stressed, while parents often underestimate how stressed kids really are. How we handle our stress makes a difference. Two-fifths of adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress in the past month. Nearly one-third said they skipped a meal because of stress in the past month. Overweight children are more likely to report eating or taking a nap to cope when they are stressed.
When it comes to healthy stress management, what can you do as a parent to serve as a better role model for your child? Try these ten healthy ways to manage stress without using food:
1. Spend time in nature. Sun exposure and natural light have been found to increase your mood. Take a break during the day and be sure to step outside or go near a window to get your dose of mood-enhancing light. Pay attention to the colors in nature when you’re outdoors. What sounds do you hear? Looking around your environment with a fresh pair of eyes can be a very relaxing experience.
2. Move your body. The current recommendations for physical activity call for sixty minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. Sound daunting? Make it fun! Go for a walk as a family, turn on the radio and dance, or practice yoga balance poses. Movement activities positively affect health by reducing blood pressure, enhancing mood, and strengthening bones.
3. Laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine. Take a moment to remember a situation that you found humorous. As you vividly recall the details, you’ll probably find that a smile spontaneously develops. Tell jokes, make funny faces or start laughing and see who laughs with you. It can be contagious!
4. Express yourself creatively. Expressive art therapy enables you to share inner thoughts or feelings when they are difficult to articulate verbally. Engaging in art activities such as finger painting, drawing, coloring, etc. may relieve feelings of anxiety.
5. Listen to music. There are many benefits to listening to music, from relaxation to enhancing sleep.
6. Take a warm bath. There are many historical references to the healing properties of water. Ancient spas originated near mineral springs and seas and were used by natural healers to support health. Establishing a bedtime routine that includes a warm bath in a quiet room can help to promote sleep and feelings of calm after a long day. Run a warm bath, light a few candles, and close the door to spend some quality time with you.
7. Aromatherapy. This refers to the use of essential oils to improve health and wellbeing. Oils are delivered to the body through inhalation, or direct application to the skin. Lavender, lemon balm and sandalwood are the two most common oils used to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Add a few drops to bath water or on a pillowcase. Rub the oils between the palms of your hands and cup your hands to inhale a few deep breaths of the scent. Use with caution if you have asthma or a skin condition associated with allergies. Consult a physician before use.
8. Gratitude journal. When we’re faced with life’s challenges, we often see only the stressful situation and lose sight of all that we have to be thankful for in our lives. The next time life seems to hand you lemons, try making lemonade by writing down ten things you appreciate in your life. It won’t eliminate the stress but you may find that it helps to improve your mood and shift your perspective, allowing you to see new possibilities to resolve stressful situations.
9. Gentle massage. Human touch is very powerful and can be quite nurturing. Use a lotion or light massage oil to rub the feet and/or hands. There are numerous “points” on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet that may influence various systems within the body. A gentle massage can be both relaxing and stimulating. Use this technique to help quell stress when it appears.
10. Mindful Breathing. The mind has a tendency to wander. Our thoughts pull us into the past, replaying moments that we can’t recover, or push us into the future as we worry about what has yet to come. The body is always in the present moment. Noticing your breathing on purpose without feeling the need to change it brings us back to the present moment. It serves as an anchor. Take a “time-out” to notice your breathing when you feel stressed or worried and pay attention to how your body feels.