Studies show that stress causes physical changes in your body whether you’re actually faced with a stressful situation or just thinking about it. As a result of dwelling on what’s happened or worrying about what’s going to happen, many of us live in a state of chronic stress, which may manifest itself in symptoms such as poor concentration, headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems, a vulnerable immune system, and even infertility.
There are scientifically proven tools to deal with stress that actually heal these changes in your body. They are free, readily available, and easy to use even for those with a too-busy-no-time lifestyle. Plus they work for everyone regardless of age. Once you learn to manage your stress, teach these techniques to your children—or even better, make it family activity, and learn together.
Toolbox for Managing Stress
- Relaxation and meditation. These powerful techniques teach your body to undo the chronic stress reaction: you learn to be in the present moment and to let go of your thoughts. After consistent practice, you need only do a minute of these techniques and your body will relax. In time, you’ll become more stress-resistant. Start with a few minutes of practice and build up to longer stretches. As little as 10-12 minutes a day can make a huge difference. Once you’ve learned the technique, you’ll be able to meditate anywhere.
There are many ways to meditate. All you need to do is breathe, focus on something, and return to that focus when you start thinking. We all start thinking. What’s important is to let the thoughts go when you’re aware of them. Your focus can be muscle relaxation, repeating a phrase or word, counting, visualization, being aware of your breath, being aware of sounds or feelings in your body, listening to music, walking, yoga, tai chi, etc. DVDs and apps for practicing relaxation or meditation are easy to come by online. Try several to find one you like.
- Journaling. Another simple technique scientists have found to make people feel happier is to keep a gratitude journal. (There are apps for this.) We all tend to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. To counter the negativity, write down two or three items each day that go right. They don’t have to be momentous: Getting an email or text from a friend, taking a moment for a cup of tea, or noticing a beautiful sunset can all be on the list.
- Make it green. A third technique that may surprise you is to have plants around. Science shows that having plants nearby helps us concentrate. Matched groups of children in classrooms with shrubs or trees (not just grass) outside the window got better grades on the same tests. Have some plants indoors, or take walks outside. You don’t need a green thumb; some plants tolerate neglect well.
- Reframing. This technique involves learning to think about a situation in a more positive way. I call it “positive self-talk” when speaking with kids. It’s a basic part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to change the brain to relieve anxiety and depression. With reframing, you recognize the negative thought that’s automatic in a stressful situation—“This will never work out”— and find a more positive way of thinking: “Change is slow, but we’re going step by step.” (This is great for driving when you’re late and stuck in traffic. Instead of thinking “We’ll never get there, the afternoon is ruined,” be aware and substitute, “We’ll get there when we get there, and the world isn’t going to end.” It’s true.)
What’s important is for you to figure out how to reframe, and then do it aloud in front of your child. You can explain that thinking about things positively helps you. Modeling works to help your child see reframing as a life tool rather than something you do to “fix” him.
You can fit these techniques in when you have a chance, although I find I’m more likely to meditate when I set aside a regular time. These are life skills for everyone, not just kids with problems, and that makes them more acceptable to our sensitive kids.
Dr. Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders. She uses these techniques in her therapy practice and has trained at the Benson-Henry Institute at Mass General/Harvard to teach these skills to parents.