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We have hit the tantrum stage in our house. Actually, we didn’t so much hit it, as it hit us. We were lucky to escape this phase with my older son, but my boys are about as different as can be, and number two has other plans for us. At not quite four, he’s making sure his voice is heard.
Case in point: the other day we were at preschool drop off. He and his brother tumbled out of the car as usual, like baby giraffes tripping over their own feet. We walked the 100 yards from the car to the door, and then the younger realized I was carrying his big brother’s jacket.
“I want you to carry my jacket!” he stomped.
“Will you please carry my jacket, mama?” I prompted.
“Please! Please carry my jacket!” he stomped again.
I took the jacket and opened the door to school. My five-year-old walked in and headed for his classroom. His little brother did not.
“NOOOOO. Carry my jacket all the way from the car! Why did you not carry MY jacket all the way from the car?!” He was flailing his arms now and shrieking.
The other moms gave me the sympathy smile as they skirted past.
Mr. Hyde had arrived. He grabbed the jacket and ran back to the car, where he planted himself firmly on the ground. He writhed in the mud as he told the whole world about the unfair favoritism I had just displayed.
“You CARRY my JACKET all the WAY FROM THE CAR!!” he demanded, as his face turned seven shades of purple and his head spun 360 degrees.
I dug deep within my parenting well and tried every trick I knew. I knelt next to him and spoke calmly. I named his emotions and listed why he felt that way. I tried to hug him. I tried to ignore him. But there would be no magic parenting today.
My heart pounded in my ears. My fists clenched and trembled. I wanted to scoop him up, carry him under one arm, and deliver him unceremoniously to his teacher.
Instead, I took some deep breaths and popped a piece of gum into my mouth. Did you know that’s just what science tells you to do? Soon, this temper tantrum ended the same as every other. After a while, he just fizzled out.
“I’m feeling better now, Mama,” he sniffled as he scooped himself up and shuffled into school (carrying his own jacket, I might add).
I felt my back clenching. He felt better, but I would carry the stress of this moment with me for the rest of the morning. While we love our little humans with all our hearts, we worry about them just as much.
I went home and googled tantrums and behavioral disorders. I had listened to his teacher tell me how wonderful he is at school, and I wondered if I was doing something wrong at home. Eventually, I took a long walk and gave him a big hug when I picked him up for lunch. The stress had melted away, but you can bet there’s more where that came from.
In today’s political climate, it seems we’re given something new to worry about every time we turn on the TV or listen to the radio. A February 2017 poll by the American Psychological Association revealed that two-thirds of Americans report being stressed about the future of our nation, regardless of political affiliation. This represents the first statistically significant increase in American stress levels since the annual survey was first conducted in 2007.
Those reporting the highest levels of stress? The parent-aged Millenials (aged 18 to 37) and Gen-Xers (aged 37 to 51).
Stress manifests itself as more than simply an emotion. Eighty percent of Americans reported experiencing at least one physical or emotional symptom of stress, with the most common being headaches, as reported by 34 percent of those surveyed. Other physical symptoms of stress include muscle tension, rapid breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, and fatigue.
If you’ve never experienced the wave of tension that washes over you when your child spirals out of control, you are most certainly the minority. And if parenting alone isn’t enough to push you over the edge, doing so in a chaotic world could make even the best of parents boil over.
So how can we take it down a notch when we’re about to reach our boiling point?
The good news is there are plenty of statistically-proven, simple ways to reduce stress. Here are my 10 favorites:
1 | Work out
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that exercise supports strong mental health. Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. These improve our ability to sleep well and reduce overall stress. Exercising regularly is shown to decrease tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve self-esteem.
How to implement it at home: Try to walk, jog, bike, dance, or swim for 30 minutes, five times per week. If you can’t fit it all in, don’t worry. Even a 10-minute walk has been shown to reduce stress.
2 | Get outside
A 2015 study by researchers from Stanford University concluded that a walk in nature significantly decreased rumination, or the tendency to focus repetitively on negative thoughts that spiral into increased stress and depression.
A 2012 study also supported these findings, indicating that children who were exposed to nature regularly had decreased stress levels and bolstered resilience for coping with stress.
How to implement it at home: Try to spend at least half an hour outdoors each day; the more natural the environment the better. If you can’t get outside, indoor plants have been proven to reduce feelings of stress, as has exposure to the sounds of nature.
3 | Pump up the jams
Music has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease stress hormones, and slow the pulse and heart rate. While many studies confirm that classical music is the best for beating stress, ultimately it may be a matter of personal preference. One study even confirmed that for regular listeners of heavy metal, the sometimes loud and chaotic music can actually regulate sadness and enhance positive emotions.
How to implement it at home: Make a playlist that you love and keep it handy. Turn it on anytime you need a soothing soundtrack.
4 | Take a deep breath
As reported by Harvard Health Publications, breath control is a well-documented stress reliever. Deep breaths through your nose that fully fill your lungs, such that your lower belly rises, can actually slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure. When you focus mentally on deep breathing, the results are even more remarkable, since it helps you to disengage from negative thought processes.
How to implement it at home: Focus on deep breathing for about 10 minutes each day, preferably in a comfortable, quiet setting. Then, if you’re on the go and experiencing a stressful event, you can elicit a relaxation response by using the same deep breathing that you’ve trained your body to respond to at home.
5 | Chew gum
A 2009 study published in the Physiology and Behavior Journal revealed that chewing gum alleviated bad moods and reduced the stress hormone cortisol in study participants. Chewing gum was also associated with increased alertness.
While this technique may not be recommended for those whose stress manifests in jaw clenching, it is a simple, useful stress management technique for many others.
How to implement it at home: Keep a pack of gum handy in your purse or car. When you experience stress or anticipate a stressor, break out a piece and chomp away.
6 | Unplug
There is so direct a correlation between stress and screen time that the American Psychological Association included a Technology and Social Media supplement to its 2017 Stress in America report. It reported that those who check their email or social media accounts frequently throughout the day report higher levels of stress than those who do not.
Not surprisingly, these same frequent users also reported increased exposure to stressors in the form of political and cultural discussions on social media. Similarly, a 2015 study positively linked duration of screen time with the severity of depression and anxiety in children.
How to implement it at home: Limit screen time and social media use. If you really want to tackle the issue, delete social media apps from your phone and restrict your use to specific times of day.
7 | Hug it out
Physical affection is a natural oxytocin producer, and oxytocin is the hormone linked with good moods and love. At the same time, physical intimacy is linked with decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, the effects are long lasting. Elevated moods extend to the next day as well.
How to implement it at home: Express your affection physically for your loved ones. You can’t spoil a child with too many hugs, and the benefits go two ways. Make an effort to hug your partner frequently, too. In our busy world, it’s too easy to pass like ships in the night.
8 | Hang with your dog
Dogs and other pets offer the type of unconditional loving companionship associated with improvements in mental, social, and physical health. Elite colleges such as Harvard and Yale now provide therapy dogs in their libraries to help students manage stress related to studying. One study by the CDC revealed that while 12 percent of children with dogs screened positive for signs of anxiety, that number jumped to 21 percent for children who did not have dogs.
How to implement it at home: If you have a pet at home, set aside a few minutes each day to show your affection for it. Even if you don’t have a pet, you might be able to volunteer at a local animal shelter once a month. Some animal shelters or community organizations even offer pet time. Our local library now provides students with the chance to read with dogs.
9 | Lend a hand
A 2013 study out of Carnegie Mellon University examined the association between volunteer work and reduced blood pressure. The study found that people who volunteered more than 200 hours per year had significantly lower risk of hypertension than those who did not. Another study out of Yale showed that small acts of kindness led to increased positive emotions and less pronounced reactions to stressful events.
How to implement it at home: You don’t need to make any grandiose acts of altruism. Something as simple as holding the door for someone, paying for someone else’s coffee, or collecting donations for an important cause can increase your mood. Reflect on your actions though. The studies only held true when participants genuinely cared about their causes.
10 | Watch what you drink
While the evidence linking hydration with mood in young adults is inconclusive, there is conclusive evidence that links hydration to mood and cognition in older adults and children. Staying well hydrated has been associated with increased alertness and elevated mood.
In addition, both caffeine and alcohol are known to contribute to dehydration, and both are linked with increased anxiety. Cutting back on alcohol and caffeine while upping your water intake can be a powerful combination to cut stress.
How to implement it at home: Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Replace your second cup of coffee or glass of wine with a glass of water. It might not be as fun, but you’ll thank yourself later.
Of course, there’s no magic cure for stress, and everyone will respond differently to different stress management techniques. The most important thing is to recognize when you’re feeling stressed and find management tools that work for you.
Our children will model our behavior. If we allow our stress to control us and lash out at those we love or withdraw from others completely, our kids will follow suit. But if we can find effective, healthy ways to take control of our anxiety, they will see that there is a healthier way.