There is no shortage of stressors on our families today. A global pandemic, adjusting to working and schooling from home, the grief of losing typical life experiences, plus daily stress from work, finances, and more, are all coming together to create an incredibly anxious moment. Especially as we reintegrate back into social life with the pandemic not fully resolved. Simply put: Humans have never been more stressed.
All of this stress can lead to an incredibly lonely experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“People live closer together than they ever have before but report fewer intimate friendships than ever before. They also report the lowest levels of empathy ever. Talk about stress!”– Embark Behavioral Health’s Chief Clinical Officer, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC.
Gent continues to explain: “Empathy is an incredible mitigator to stress because healthy, secure relationships are resilient. And if we report we’re not receiving empathy, guess what happens? Levels of stress and anxiety go through the roof, and that’s where we are throughout society.”
Resist the Urge to Normalize Anxiety
Even though overwhelming stress is commonplace, it is not “normal,” and parents must watch out for the consequences of this type of stress on their children, especially when it turns into anxiety.
“I would tell parents not to normalize what society has deemed as ‘typical’ stress, because anxiety and overwhelming stress are higher than ever throughout human history,” says Gent. “We have to be cautious not to become numb to this overwhelming stress.”
Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality have never been higher than they are today, and empathy perception has never been lower. So, what’s a parent to do in the face of such challenging circumstances?
First of all, check-in with yourself: If you, as a parent, are running on empty (emotionally), you will not be able to give energy and empathy to the people you care about. As the adage goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Recently, we discussed how parental stress affects children and how contagious stress is within a family unit. The gist is that we are hardwired to mirror the attitudes and dispositions of those around us, with children being especially susceptible to these effects. They need modeling on how to cope with overwhelming stress in a healthy way.
Tackle Stress as a Family
Fortunately, there are many ways that families can handle these circumstances and improve the health and wellbeing of everyone involved, not just family members that are reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety.
1. Remember: Kids Do Well When They Can
It may be easy for a parent to view their child’s behavior as disrespectful or insubordinate. Troublesome behavior is most often a response to stress or complex emotions. If a child could do better, they would.
Use the less desirable behavior as an indicator that they are experiencing emotional distress, and be curious about it! How caregivers respond can either support their child in their emotions, or it can exacerbate the emotional distress making the issue worse.
Problems are rarely solved by talking, especially in families. All conflict and arguments occur because parties are trying to solve the problem by talking. Often, when talking doesn’t work, we double down on our mistake and just talk louder and more aggressively.
Listening requires humility to learn about another’s experience and an openness to experience pain or discomfort with someone. When we can listen with curiosity and openness, it provides opportunities for connection in which empathy buffers us against stress.
3. Set Boundaries
It may feel counterintuitive, but setting and maintaining boundaries and limits within your family can reduce stress. People function better when they know the plan and what’s expected of them. At Embark, we often work with families to help set these parameters around the household, so everyone knows their role within the family unit.
4. Schedule Activities & Family Time
Has it been a while since you spent time together as a family? Even though you might encounter a little resistance at first, having an expected time set to do an activity together can do wonders for everyone’s sense of wellbeing.
From a game around the coffee table to a hike outside or even some simple, spontaneous play, do something that takes attention away from screens and emphasizes face-to-face interaction. Remember that emotions of love and belonging are just as contagious as emotions of stress!
5. Take Time to Breathe
While it might sound cliche, learning and utilizing simple breathing techniques can help bring down stress and anxiety levels. Remember: As long as you are breathing, there is more going right than wrong.
By consciously using our diaphragms, these techniques enable us to regulate our autonomic and central nervous systems. Basic, deep breaths work, or you can try the 4-7-8 method: inhale for a count of 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8. Repeat this 4 times.
6. Dive Deeper with HeartMath
HeartMath is a system where people learn to influence the rhythm of their heart, which can have profound effects on their emotional state. While there are many techniques, try this simple option: Focus on your heart area and imagine breathing slowly (in for 5, out for 5) through this area. While you do this, focus on feeling a positive or caring emotion, such as love for a friend or pride in an accomplishment. Here’s a video on how to do it.
7. Limit Screen Time
While we’re using screens more and more for work and school, they don’t give us what we need emotionally to regulate our stress. Schedule screen time for your children (when it’s ok and when it’s not), and try to have a few meals per week together without screens. While it may take time, this is a great way to reconnect and create a culture of togetherness.
8. Check the Basics
Sometimes the simplest fixes can have the most significant impact. Take a moment to assess the basic health and well-being of your family: Is everyone eating healthily (lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, etc.)? Is everyone getting enough exercise and physical activity? Is everyone sleeping enough and drinking plenty of water? Even in times of anxiety, it’s essential to prioritize our health so we can better cope with stress.
One Step at a Time
A little focus on health, plus some reasonable boundaries and quality family time, can do so much to alleviate the stress and anxiety of modern life. These tips and techniques are affordable and straightforward and will significantly impact the entire family.
If you gave them a try, shoot us a message on Instagram and tell us how it went!