It is no secret that we live in a time of high anxiety. As adults we navigate the news, weather issues, workplace stress, and family events or emergencies on a daily basis. Being able to manage our strong feelings around all of these things that are beyond our control is difficult. It is only natural to find that some days we are better able to do this than others. Each day has a different string of stressors, and we have varying degrees of energy or stamina to meet those demands.
Through the years we develop coping strategies that we have learned keep us calm or safe. Whether intentional or not, we pass these strategies on to our children. We do it by example, and by what we consciously offer them in times of need.
But what if there was a different way of responding to stress that was more proactive? Could having an understanding of our nervous system help us manage stress before it becomes overwhelming? If you could do this, wouldn’t you want to do this for your whole family to create a greater sense of well-being?
Throughout the day, your nervous system adjusts to manage the variety of demands of your day. This Stress Response, a chemical reaction to perceived threats in the central nervous system or CNS, can be a positive thing. This response offers many benefits:
- Motivation to prioritize our time and efforts
- Energy to meet demands
- Alertness or focus to increase efficiency
However, when stress levels exceed our ability to meet and manage the challenge, we move into distress. Distress overwhelms the nervous system and we are not as able to meet demands, we can feel shaky, nervous, tired, and depleted.
By activating our Relaxation Response, we are providing equilibrium, or a return to a calmer state from which to respond in a productive way. Simple strategies can help you activate your relaxation response, allowing you to be more present and productive during stressful situations and manage them in ways that are optimal, wise, and efficient.
This 4 part response can help you reset this CNS response system in order to manage and cope positively to stress and create a sense of calm for your whole family:
- The first thing we need to be able to do is be aware of our body when it is stressed and when it is calm. Notice how you feel on an evening stroll or walk, and compare this to how you are feeling when you are meeting a deadline. During your walk you are likely relaxed, hopefully noticing the sights around you, breathing in a relaxed manner, muscles fluid and flexible. When we are stressed, the feeling is usually the opposite. We are tense, our hearts beating rapidly, breath is shallow and quick. Being aware of how our bodies feel during these episodes is key to being able to manage our stress response.
- Once you take notice, you can then start being aware of these symptoms during the course of your day. When you do notice stress, notice if the feeling is helpful (motivating and helping you manage your work demands) or harmful (overreacting to situations, feeling anxious, or a sense of feeling overwhelmed). Not all stress is bad, we need to view it as a helpful response to our environmental needs. When you are moving into the harmful or reactive state, it is helpful for you to activate the relaxation response. We typically know when we are in a harmful reactive stress state. We may say things we don’t mean, and experience a flooding of emotions, and are hyper-aroused. We tend to see things as threats that are not intended to be threatening. It is almost impossible to react in a purposeful, productive, and wise manner when our system is hyper-aroused.
- Triggering our relaxation response is not necessarily difficult. It can be as easy as having a cup of tea, or a cold drink, taking a walk outside, listening to music, looking at pictures or videos of people we love or something funny, taking 4 long and slow breaths, stretching and bending our bodies, or finding something to be grateful for. Our nervous system wants to be responsive and helpful. We just need to learn how to “tap” into the wisdom of our bodies.
- It is important for parents to cultivate this practice daily. Parents provide models for their children in managing life. As we practice positive healthy ways of coping, our children will too. I suggest planning a time to relax or unwind for 15 minutes a day. This could be before or after dinner, at the end of the day, or after school. Schools used to promote a DEAR time – or Drop Everything And Read, what about Drop Everything And Relax? When you make this a priority, you give your child tools and insight on how to manage their stress for years to come.
For more information on this topic, including a more specific understanding of the nervous system and details on how to introduce meditation and other calming strategies, see Vivianmorgancounseling.com under Digital Downloads.