Stress management tips for parents
© 2006-2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
These evidence-based stress management tips can help you and your family cope with chronic, everyday stress.
Analyze your stressors
A stressor is a situation, thought, or stimulus that triggers your stress response. We all need a little stress in our lives. Good stress makes us feel alert and stimulated.
But chronic, acute stress can cause anxiety, depression, and disease.
Different people may respond differently to the same stressor. It's important to identify what stressors cause you distress. The more you learn about your stressors, the more likely you are to diminish, control, or eliminate them.
Helplessness, or feeling out of control, intensifies stress. There are plenty of bad things we can’t control-—like being caught in a natural disaster or suffering from terminal cancer.
But some bad situations can be changed. And some aspects of our stress response can be improved. To a great degree, just recognizing what you can change—and committing yourself to make changes—can reduce your distress. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (2004), neurologist Robert Sapolsky argues that taking action is more than half the battle. The specific stress management tips you follow may be less important than your commitment to follow through.
Get more oxytocin
Oxytocin is a natural sedative that promotes emotional attachment, maternal behavior, sexual arousal, intimacy, and trust. Known as the “cuddle” hormone, it is also a neurotransmitter that reduces blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels (Uvnäs-Moberg 1998). When people are given oxytocin, they recover from stressful situations more quickly and heal faster (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).
If you are under stress, you might benefit from more oxytocin. Here are some stress management tips for boosting oxytocin levels (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003):
• Breastfeed. Breastfeeding triggers an oxytocin surge in mothers. It may also boost the oxytocin of nursing infants--but more research is needed to confirm this.
• Tickle and hug your kids. Such pleasant forms of touch can increase oxytocin levels. And don't forget one of the oldest forms of social touch--grooming. See the monkeys above for a demonstration...
• Seek out pleasant social interactions. You don't have to touch another person to increase your oxytocin levels. Research suggests that a friendly conversation can boost oxytocin.
And you don't even have to talk. A recent study reports that dog owners get a boost in oxytocin every time their dogs gaze at them (Nagasawa et al 2009).
Get more sleep
When you’re stressed, you lose sleep. When you lose sleep, you feel more stressed.
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you tired. It interferes with the natural pattern of stress hormone production. Stress hormones typically peak in the morning and diminish throughout the day. In people suffering from sleep restriction, stress hormones rise in the afternoon and evening (Spiegel et al 2003). Sleep restriction also reduces the body's production of melatonin (Spiegel et al 2003), impairs memory (Yoo et al 2007), and hampers the immune system (Rogers et al 2001).
Parents of newborns and young babies often suffer from sleep restriction. For tips on surviving the newborn phase, see this article on
newborn sleep patterns.
For coping with sleep problems in babies, see my article on
infant sleep problems.
For sleep problems in older kids, see my
family sleep tips.
Get a massage
As noted above, massage therapy increases oxytocin levels. It also descreases levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and boosts levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (Field et al 2005). Massage has therapeutic effects on infants and children, as well as adults.
Address and treat your child's nighttime fears
Many children suffer from nighttime fears and separation anxiety. Obviously, such fears are distressing to kids. They trigger the release of stress hormones at night, and interfere with sleep. If your child suffers from nocturnal fears, teach him how to cope with them. For more information, see my article on
nighttime fears in children.
Find a pleasant form of exercise
Exercise protects the body against the effects of physical and psychological stress (Spalding et al 2004). It also reduces anxiety (Altchilder and Motta 1994). And experiments suggest that exercise strengthens the connections between neurons and improves memory (Coles and Tomporowski 2008; van Pragg et al 1999).
But there are some caveats. First, to reap anti-stress benefits, exercise should be aerobic. Weight training has important health benefits, but it’s not a great stress-buster. Second, you will get more benefits if you exercise in bouts of at least 30 minutes. This is how long it takes for the brain to produce endophins—those natural opiates that give you the “jogger’s high.”
Third, you might not benefit if you don’t want to exercise. When animals are forced to exercise, they become more—-not less--stressed (Greenwood et al 2003).
People who live in cities become accustomed to “tuning out” noise. But noise can trigger elevated stress hormones, even if you are not consciously aware of it. If you can reduce your exposure to noise, you may find yourself becoming less tense and irritable.
Eliminate unnecessary deadlines
If you think those high-pressure deadlines are killing you, you might be right. An analysis of heart attack patients in Sweden revealed that “having a high-pressure deadline at work” is associated with a six-fold increase in the risk of a myocardial infarction over the next 24 hours (Moller et al 2005).
You probably can’t eliminate all deadlines. Nor should you. Some deadlines have positive effects—they challenge us, stimulate enthusiasm, and inspire problem-solving. But you it's also important to recognize that a high-pressure, deadline-oriented lifestyle if that lifestyle can make you sick. If you are stressed out at work and your job imposes frequent, high-pressure deadlines on you, it might be time to consider a change of employment.
You can also change the deadlines that are self-imposed. Before you commit yourself to a deadline, ask yourself what makes that date special. In some cases, people create rushed deadlines for themselves as a way to cope with feelings of guilt. For example, if you feel you’ve let someone down in the past, you may be tempted to make very generous promises now. It’s a natural reaction, but it will backfire if you commit yourself to deadlines that are unrealistic, or attainable only at the cost of a high-stress meltdown.
In other cases, people set themselves tight deadlines to avoid procrastination. There is nothing wrong with this strategy if you thrive under the resulting stress. But if your self-imposed deadlines create bad stress, you need to find alternative ways to motivate yourself.
References: Stress management tips
Altchiler L, Motta R.1994. Effects of aerobic and nonaerobic exercise on anxiety, absenteeism, and job satisfaction. J Clin Psychol. 50(6):829-40.
Coles K and Tomporowski PD. 2008. Effects of acute exercise on executive processing, short-term and long-term memory. J Sports Sci. 26(3):333-44.
Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Diego M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. 2005. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci. 115(10):1397-413.
Greenwood BN, Fleshner M. 2008. Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain. Neuromolecular Med. 2008 Feb 26; [Epub ahead of print]
Greenwood BN, Kennedy S, Smith TP, Campeau S, Day HE, Fleshner M. 2003. Voluntary freewheel running selectively modulates catecholamine content in peripheral tissue and c-Fos expression in the central sympathetic circuit following exposure to uncontrollable stress in rats. Neuroscience. 2003;120(1):269-81.
Möller J, Theorell T, de Faire U, Ahlbom A, Hallqvist J. 2005 Work related stressful life events and the risk of myocardial infarction. Case-control and case-crossover analyses within the Stockholm heart epidemiology programme (SHEEP).
J Epidemiol Community Health. 59(1):23-30.
Nagasawa M, Kikusui T, Onaka T, and Ohta M. 2009. Dog's gaze at its owner increases owner's urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Horm Behav. 2009 Mar;55(3):434-41.
Rogers NL, Szuba MP, Staab JP, Evans DL, Dinges DF. 2001. Neuroimmunologic aspects of sleep and sleep loss. Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 6(4):295-307.
Sapolsky RM. 2006. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Third edition. NY: Henry Holt and company.
Spalding TW, Lyon LA, Steel DH, Hatfield BD. 2004 Aerobic exercise training and cardiovascular reactivity to psychological stress in sedentary young normotensive men and women. Psychophysiology. 41(4):552-62.
Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. 2003. [Impact of sleep debt on physiological rhythms] Rev Neurol (Paris). 159(11 Suppl):6S11-20. French.
Uvnäs-Moberg K. 1998.Antistress Pattern Induced by Oxytocin. News Physiol Sci. 13:22-25.
Uvnäs-Moberg K. 2003. The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing; Boston: Da Capo Press.
van Praag H, Christie BR, Sejnowski TJ, Gage FH 1999. Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 96, 13427-31.
Yoo SS, Hu PT, Gujar N, Jolesz FA, Walker MP. 2007. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nat Neurosci. 10(3):385-92.
Content last modified 3/9